FICTIONAL FOREMOTHERS BY WOMEN, 3

Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)

Margaret Todd and Mona Maclean

 ‘Mona Maclean, Medical Student’, published in 1892 under the pseudonym Graham Travers, was the first novel of Margaret Todd, who was a medical student at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women when she wrote it.  She did qualify, but did not stay in practice for long, and became the domestic partner of the pioneering Sophia Jex-Blake, whose biography she wrote.

   Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd (1859 - 1918)

In the novel, Mona Maclean is an already well-educated and financially independent young woman as she undertakes medical studies at the London School of Medicine for Women. However, having failed her ‘Intermediate’ examination for the second time, she becomes somewhat disheartened and agrees to stay with a distant cousin in a Scottish village.

But before going, she is, to her surprise, ‘taken up’ by a socially successful and wealthy aunt and uncle and taken on a wonderful holiday in Norway. There, she enjoys both the luxuries, novelties and scenery, and also intellectual discussion with her uncle. He is disappointed that Mona wishes to become a doctor, yet at the same time does wish there to be women doctors – for women. She agrees with the latter point, and is beginning to be uncertain about the first. Romance is something she has discounted, and when a tall, handsome stranger known as ‘the Sahib’ rescues her on the mountainside she comes to regard him with fondness – as a brother.

Once these delightful weeks are over, despite pleas to the contrary, Mona joins her cousin Rachel in Borrowness, a village in Scotland. Rachel, Mona finds, is small-minded and snobbish, forbids her to say she is a medical student, and expects her to serve in the small and dowdy drapery shop. Mona, who is always moralising in a vaguely religious way, commits to do this as well as she can, although she finds the local company very trying, except for a Dr Dudley, whom she comes across by the sea shore. He makes several noble medical interventions for the community, but is, oddly, not yet fully qualified. Although drawn to Mona he assumes she is his social inferior. There is also another, keener, suitor, a local botaniser and superior draper, whom Mona’s aunt regards as a ‘catch'.

At intervals, a female character falls ill and consults the admirable experienced and wise Dr Helen Bateson who has a ‘girlish figure’, ‘ earnest brown eyes and a resolute mouth’. It is likely she was based on Sophia Jex-Blake.

It is not too hard to anticipate which lover succeeds, but this takes many pages, with many mischances and misunderstandings in between little successes. Eventually we find both Dr Dudley and Mona studying for Finals and achieving prizes. All issues resolved, they marry, and set up practice together in the East End of London, where Mona will specialise in helping distressed women.

 Medical Students in Pennsylvannia

Women medical students at the dissecting table in Pennsylvania

Comment

We discover from an informed source (the author) that women medical students can even enjoy the dissection room (after the initial shock) while continuing to take an intense interest in their clothes, and having extensive girly chats. Women are presented as naturally suited for medicine and not ‘blunted’ by the training. It is other women who really need them.