Sophie Almond is a second year PhD student studying at the University of Leicester. Her thesis, ‘The Medical Women’s Federation, 1879-1948’ seeks to shed new light on the early history of the organisation, and to explore how perceptions of women’s health changed during this seventy year period. Her research is funded by the Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.
On the 24th July I flew out to New York to give a paper at the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) Centennial Congress. Over 1000 medical women from across the globe were expected at the four day conference, and around 100 speakers were due to give papers on a diverse range of subjects – from digital technologies to the ‘Times Up in Healthcare’ initiative. I felt extremely privileged to be chosen to partake in the conference; as a historian of medicine with no clinical background, I felt slightly out of place at such an important meeting of inspiring medical women. Luckily, I was made to feel very welcome by everyone that I came across. On Friday 26th, I attended the official opening ceremony of the congress at the Brooklyn Marriott, and was taken aback by the sheer scale of the event. Many medical women wore the traditional dress of their country – the Medical Women’s Federation of Nigeria had a particularly spectacular ensemble of green dresses printed with the MWIA logo, along with matching head wraps.
The following day, I attended a fascinating panel on the global obesity crisis. It was enlightening to see how such a common issue was dealt with in different parts of the world; for example in the United States there was more of a focus on a combination of lifestyle change and medication and surgery options, whilst in India education in rural communities was proving to be very successful. After lunch, it was my turn to present on the panel ‘Medical Women: Ambassadors of Change’. My paper provided a brief history of the Association of Registered Medical Women (1879-1916) and then explored the MWF’s early relationship with the MWIA.
Three years after the MWF was founded in 1917, former President Jane Walker (1859-1938) started to think about the possibility of collaborating with medical women from across the globe. She believed that an international association of medical women would be of great benefit to the profession as a whole. Walker set up a subcommittee to organise the international association. In December 1920, Walker wrote to Esther Lovejoy (1869-1967) in the United States to share her brilliant plan: ‘Dear Dr Lovejoy, The MWF in Great Britain has been approached by various sources and urged to call a conference of foreign women doctors, with a view to founding an International Association of Medical Women’.
Unbeknown to Walker, the MWIA had already been founded a year previously in New York. In spite of women doctors from the U.K attending the meeting, no one had officially told the MWF. Understandably, this mistake was very embarrassing for everyone involved. In her reply to Walker, Lovejoy wrote: ‘Dear Dr Walker, The Medical Women’s International Association was actually founded in New York City in October 1919 … I agree with you absolutely regarding the urgent necessity of intimate cooperation between medical women of different countries …’. Walker had a number of issues with the MWIA’s constitution; rather than being made up of individual women doctors, she wanted the MWIA to grant membership to representative organisations such as the MWF. After months of letters exchanged between Walker and Lovejoy, the two women finally agreed that the proposal for the new constitution of the MWIA would be discussed at the next international meeting. Both indomitable women attended the 1922 conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
Walker (centre, light jacket and hat) and Lovejoy (front row, second from right) at the 1922 MWIA congress in Geneva.
In 1924, the MWF hosted the 1st congress of the MWIA under its new constitution. The congress theme was maternal morbidity. The extensive entertainment programme included tea at Hampton court palace and a reception at 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister. The congress was a resounding success, and whilst members of the MWF hosted around 300 delegates from around the world, they managed to keep up their professional duties too:
‘The overseas guests felt quite fatigued with the energy displayed by their British hostesses, not only on account of their generous hospitality, but the fact that many continued with their daily professional duties during the conference – Lady Florence Barrett performed a caesarean section prior to chairing a meeting of the MWIA council’.
All in all, I was honoured to present my research at the congress, and I was incredibly touched to be presented with an MWF mug by Dr Amanda Owen afterwards (thankfully it survived the flight home!). I hope to keep the MWF updated on all of my future research findings, so be sure to keep an eye out.
Dr Amanda Owen presenting me with my MWF mug
MWF Archive, Wellcome Library, London.