The Scots have always been pioneers when it comes to the world of medicine. James Simpson, who introduced anaesthetics in the 19th century and Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin in 1928, are but two. The medical profession itself has always been something of a male bastion, but that will have to change: over 60% of medical students are now female, a welcome development.

Although the steady rise of female applicants to medical school is a modern development, Scottish women have played a significant role in the history of medicine since the 19th century (and probably earlier); with some remarkable stories and characters emerging from the archives. These women deserve recognition and the highest respect, for forging ahead when even nursing itself was in its earliest days and the idea of a female doctor or surgeon was deemed unacceptable by the male establishment.

Revolutionary times

One such pioneer was Sophia Jex-Blake. Born in 1840, she was accepted by the Edinburgh University Medical School in 1869 she and her friend Edith Pechy were the first women ever to be enrolled for medical training, after much hard campaigning on Sophia's part. And yet even then, despite passing her exams with flying colours, regulations prevented women from actually serving as doctors on hospital wards, so she couldn't graduate. Sophia was not to give up easily. She took herself off to Ireland where she finally obtained her licence to practice from the Dublin College of Physicians. Sophia Jex-Blake then devoted her life to the cause of women in medicine - both improving the treatment of female patients and creating better opportunities for female medical education, eventually founding the revolutionary Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

A notable student at the medical school was suffragist Elsie Inglis. Born in India in 1864, she was fortunate to have unusually enlightened parents who supported their daughter in her battle to become a doctor. Fighting prejudice all the way, Elsie trained in Edinburgh and eventually founded a maternity hospital, the first of the Scottish Women's Hospitals. She went to Serbia during the Great War where her efforts to improve hygiene radically reduced the typhus and other epidemics which had been raging there. She was captured there and later repatriated, but the experience didn't deter her from practising abroad; she went to Russia in 1916 where she worked tirelessly in appalling conditions. Although clearly compassionate about her patients, Elsie was also a strict disciplinarian, causing one biographer to assert that she "made Florence Nightingale look like a part-time care assistant in comparison".

A curious story

Dr James 'Miranda' Barry was a rather more unusual case. Graduating from the Medical School of Edinburgh in 1812 and forging a hugely successful career as an army surgeon, eventually becoming Inspector General of Hospitals - one of the most senior medical positions in the military, it was discovered upon Barry's death that this notorious dandy and flirt (who once even fought a duel over a woman) was in fact, female, and had lived a sensational deception all her life. The irony was that without taking on the vestiges of masculinity, Barry would never at that time have been accepted for medical training.

On the front line

Extraordinary courage was shown by Scots women during the First World War. One Mairi Chisholm, a mere 18 year old, chose to find war work in London by getting on her motorcycle and riding all the way from Edinburgh to the capital. Once there, she became a despatch rider for the Women's Emergency Corps and eventually ended up in Belgium as part of a Flying Ambulance Corps led by Dr Hector Munro. But Mairi wasn't near enough the action. She decided to set up a medical post right on the front line, treating wounded soldiers on the spot and encountering unimaginable horrors in doing so. Her unstinting bravery was rewarded by the Belgians with military honours and even a visit from the King himself. Mairi was badly affected by a gas attack, but kept returning to the front, before being forced to abandon her post just months before the end of the war.

At around the same time, a fellow Scot was inspired by a talk given by Dr Elsie Inglis on the Scottish Women's Hospital Unit. Inglis was looking for volunteers to accompany her to Serbia and Ishbel Ross, born on the Isle of Skye to James Ross - inventor of Drambuie - was keen to join her. She arrived in Salonika in August 1916 and remained on the Balkan Front for almost a year. Ishbel kept a diary of her experiences (now held by the Imperial War Museum in London) and it makes for fascinating, though harrowing reading.

Climbing the ladder

After the First World War, Scottish women continued steadily to infiltrate the medical profession. Jean MacLean was the eldest daughter of a physician and chose an unusual subject for a woman to specialise in at the time. She went to Boston to study psychiatry and later returned to Scotland where she received an MD from Edinburgh University in 1918. She forged a successful career as a psychiatrist at Crichton Royal Institute and later in Dumfries.

Margaret Fairlie reached the very highest rungs of the academic ladder as the first woman to hold a professorial chair in Scotland. She graduated from St Andrews in 1915 and worked throughout Scotland until establishing a consultant gynaecology practice in Dundee in 1919. After a visit to the legendary Curie Clinic in Paris, Margaret became a pioneer of the use of radium in Scotland. In 1936 she was made Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Dundee Royal Infirmary, achieving her professorship in 1940.

A fellow trailblazer was Gertrude Herzfeld who qualified in Edinburgh in 1914 and became the first practicing woman surgeon in Scotland, initially as House Surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children. In 1920 she received the prestigious accolade of a Fellowship to the Royal College of Surgeons - only the second woman to have done so at the time. She became surgeon to the Bruntsfield Hospital (The Edinburgh Hospital for Women and Children) and was president of the Medical Women's Federation.

Notable names

Women have struggled throughout the 20th century to gain recognition in the world of medicine, and the upper levels of the profession are still very much a male-dominated sphere. But Scotland is fortunate to have many female leading lights in its hospitals and universities. Here are snapshots of just a few:

Selected as Scotland's Woman of Influence in 2002, Dr Anna Gregor headed Scotland's Cancer Group which she led with huge energy from 2001 to 2006. She was a particularly passionate evangelist for improving the patient experience. Born in Czechoslovakia, she has worked in Scotland for the last 25 years and is now dubbed Scotland's cancer 'czarina'. Dr Gregor received a CBE in 2009 for services to medicine.

Dr Mary Hepburn received a lifetime achievement award in 2007 in recognition for her work with vulnerable women across Glasgow over 20 years. She worked as an Honorary Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and Senior Lecturer at Glasgow University, and as an adviser for organisations, including the World Health Organisation. Her main research interest was the medical impact of socio-economic deprivation, particularly the question of how very low standards of living might affect pregnancy and child health.

Professor Karen Vousde, formerly the high profile head of America's Regulation of Cell Growth Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland, has returned to Scotland to take the reins at the Beatson Institute, a multi-million pound state-of-the-art centre which puts Scotland firmly on the map in cancer research.

All these women have reached the top of their profession, and they, like others before them, have chosen Scotland as the place where they can practise medicine of the highest quality and push the boundaries of research and discovery. They are the pride of Scotland's hospitals and medical schools, and are justly recognised by their peers throughout Britain and beyond.

Related content