Mary Edith Pechey-Phipson, MD (1845 - 1908)
Pioneering doctor and campaigner

Edith PecheyIn 1877 a remarkable woman came to live and work in Leeds. Her name was Edith Pechey, already well known as one of the tiny band of intrepid women who had dared to challenge the medical establishment, fighting – and ultimately winning – a long and bitter battle to gain medical qualifications and be allowed to practise. When she arrived in Leeds she was one of only seven women in the country who had won the right to be registered as a doctor.

Edith Pechey came originally from the village of Langham, Essex, the sixth child of the Baptist Minister there, born in 1845. She inherited a love of learning from her parents, and her first work was in teaching, but her ambition was to study and practise medicine, particularly in the field of women’s health. Many women were dying in childbirth and infant deaths were commonplace, yet obstetrics did not feature in medical training, and medicine was a totally male preserve.

She met other women prepared to fight for the right to qualify, and in 1869 she joined four others applying to enter the prestigious School of Medicine in Edinburgh. They passed the exams for admission but had to be taught separately from the men, at much higher fees. They achieved excellent results, but endured insults and constant harassment, at one point braving a noisy, stone-throwing mob. And when Edith won a prize for chemistry, it was refused because she was a woman. This blatant injustice evoked letters to The Times and passionate confrontations in Edinburgh, where two professors refused point-blank to teach the women ‘improper’ subjects like Anatomy. Another claimed that medical education for women would be a curse to civilisation!

The opposition won (fear of professional competition?). Although the women completed their studies successfully, they were not granted degrees, in spite of taking legal action against the University. There was no giving-up – they looked to qualify elsewhere. Finally, after a year working at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, Edith gained her M.D. in 1877 from the University of Berne in Switzerland (taking her exams in German) and acquired further qualifications in Dublin, enabling her, after more argument, to be registered to practise. Where next?

She already had links with Yorkshire, where she had given courses of lectures on women’s health for the Yorkshire Ladies’ Council of Education. She also had contacts with the lively group of women (and men) in Leeds who were campaigning for better educational opportunities for women. Knowing she would have supportive friends, she chose to come to Leeds, setting up in practice in Park Square and living first in Warwick Villas, near the Infirmary, and then in a charming, seventeenth century house in rural Bramley. No doubt she encountered prejudice, but it is said that this was soon dispelled by her charm, intelligence, and generosity of mind.

No details of her work in Leeds are known, but she may have had links with the Public Dispensary which looked after the needs of the poor, her particular care and interest. She was also in great demand as a speaker, giving the keynote inaugural address at the opening of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1877; lecturing on health and nursing for the Yorkshire Ladies’ Council; addressing the Social Science Congress in Edinburgh in 1880; and speaking in campaigns for women’s suffrage, another cause close to her heart. In 1882 she was elected President of the Medical Women’s Federation of England.

Then, in 1883, she accepted a fresh challenge: to head up a new hospital and dispensary in India, where women’s health was being damaged by seclusion and child marriage, yet they were barred from treatment by male doctors. Women doctors were desperately needed. She gave up her work in Leeds to a fellow woman doctor, and after an arduous journey, arrived in Bombay to begin what became her life work. She established hospitals, set up medical training for women, campaigned against child marriage. When she was 44 she met Herbert Phipson, a businessman who shared her concerns and interests, and they married. With his support she continued her work, though her health was suffering. She and her husband finally returned to England in 1905, but she did not rest. She had kept her Yorkshire friends, and represented Leeds and Huddersfield in the ongoing campaigns for women’s suffrage. In 1907 she marched bravely at the head of the famous ‘Mud March’, but she was already seriously ill. A year later she died of breast cancer and diabetes, aged 67. She was described as the ablest of those pioneering women who broke through the barriers - Leeds can be proud of its association with her.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2014