Fictional Foremothers By Men: Blog Three



Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)

Wilkie Collins and Dr Sophia Pillico

Wilke Collins

Wilkie Collins, 1824-1889

The short story ‘Fie, Fie! the Fair Physician’,  by Willie Collins, was published in 1882. It is  presented as if an edited account from a woman participant  - which allows the actual author to distance himself from the views expressed. This time, the woman doctor, Sophia Pillico, is central to the plot. We learn that she is young and ‘passably pretty’, and is medically qualified with an MD. (Her name etymologically suggests ‘wisdom about pills’.) She has arrived in South East London and gives lectures on the Rights of Women in the local assembly room.

She attracts the custom of the lady patients of the local doctor but also likes to have male patients. This is very popular with the older gentlemen as she doesn't always use her stethoscope, but presses her ear directly to the chest and back. The wives look on this practice less favourably.

Otto Fitzmark is a rather weak but attractive young gentleman who is courting Salome, a local young lady, yet also becomes interested in Doctor Pillico. The latter examines Otto closely with and without her stethoscope and advises him not to marry at least until his health improves - she has been falling in love with Otto despite his being her patient.

Meanwhile Salome, in an attempt to make Otto jealous, has made a visit to the house of a rival suitor. Otto is cross about this and says that as he has an illness and cannot marry he leaves her free. Realising what is going on, Salome’s sister speaks to Dr Pillico and tells her that Otto admires someone else. Sophia re-examines Otto and tells him that as her prescribed digitalis has been effective, he is now well.  However, Otto does not respond with a proposal, as she hoped, so she gets angry and tells him to see another doctor.

Otto and Salome become engaged and Sophia says it is very difficult when her male patients insist on falling in love with her.

Lady Physicians Wellcome Collection

Lady Physicians (Wellcome Collection)


This is pretty bad, and not thought much of by the author either, who did not wish it to be re-published. It is almost a merit that it is hard to work out what is going on. At the time, professional ‘boundary-breaking’ was frowned on by the GMC, especially if ‘another man’s wife’ was involved, but it rarely intervened. Novelists viewed the situation as a natural source of romance.


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