Ulster-born doctor Emily Winifred Dickson helped pave the path for women surgeons in Ireland

Emily Winifred Dickson from Dungannon who became the first female surgical fellow in Great Britain and Ireland
Emily Winifred Dickson from Dungannon who became the first female surgical fellow in Great Britain and Ireland
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Historian Gordon Lucy examines the legacy of Emily Winifred Dickson 75 years after her death

In 2010 Professor Eilis McGovern became the first woman to be elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland since its incorporation by charter in February 1784.

A native of Mount Charles, Co Donegal, Professor McGovern has stated that her professional career was inspired by the example of another Ulster woman: Emily Winifred Dickson from Dungannon who became the first female surgical fellow in Great Britain and Ireland.

Born on July 13 1866, Emily Winifred was one of the three daughters of Thomas Alexander Dickson and Elizabeth Greer Dickson (née McGeach). They also had three sons.

T A Dickson was a Presbyterian linen manufacturer and Liberal politician who variously represented Dungannon (1871-1880), Co Tyrone (1881-1885) and the St Stephen’s Green division of Dublin (1888-1892) in the House of Commons.

During the 1874 general election campaign the ‘Northern Whig’ described Dickson as ‘the most extensive merchant, manufacturer and employer of labour in the district’. He was a wealthy and influential man who was appointed to the Irish Privy Council in 1893.

Being the daughter of a man of status and prestige may have made Emily Winifred’s ground-breaking career slightly easier than it might have been for someone else.

Mrs Dickson’s maiden name and second Christian name place her firmly in a network of Liberal families engaged in the linen trade. Mrs Dickson was very sickly and doctors were frequent visitors to the family home and it was this contact with the medical profession (reinforced by paternal encouragement) which prompted Emily Winifred to study medicine.

On leaving school Emily Winifred nursed her mother for a year. She applied to Trinity College, Dublin, but was turned down because she was a woman.

Nevertheless she managed to enter the Royal College of Surgeons in 1887, where she proved to be an outstanding student, winning medals and graduating as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1891.

She trained in midwifery at the Rotunda Hospital and qualified MB BCh. BAO with a first-class honours degree and gold medal in 1893.

In 1896 she was elected the first woman fellow (FRCSI) of any of the Colleges of Surgeons in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She was also awarded a travelling scholarship by the Royal University of Ireland and studied in the General Hospital in Vienna and subsequently in Berlin, where she was not allowed to attend ward rounds on account of her gender.

On returning to Dublin her application for a post at the Rotunda was refused on the same grounds.

She practised as a gynaecologist and was appointed to the Richmond Hospital in Dublin. Having two postgraduate degrees (MD and MAO from RUI in 1896), she published papers and lectured. She was appointed an examiner in midwifery and gynaecology. The appointment generated protests by male students from both the RSCI and the Catholic Medical School but happily these protests were ignored.

In this era it was believed that a career in medicine made a woman less suitable for marriage. This prejudice did not prevent Emily Winifred in marrying Robert Macgregor Martin, a Scottish businessman, in Ormond Quay Presbyterian Church in Dublin in December 1899.

Believing that marriage and motherhood were incompatible with the demands of the medical profession, she gave up work to raise their family of four sons and one daughter.

When her husband returned shell-shocked from the Great War in 1915 and unable to work, she returned to medicine as an assistant medical officer at Rainhill Mental Hospital in Lancashire. She contracted ‘Spanish flu’ in 1918, as a result of which her health thereafter was not robust.

During the inter-war years, she was either in general practice or serving as a medical health officer in various locations (including Shropshire, Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells and south Wales), periodically interrupted by ill-health.

She returned to Rainhill Mental Hospital in 1940 and worked there right up to a few weeks before her death from an incurable carcinoma (which she neglected to tell her family about). She died at the home of her youngest son in Whitecraigs, Renfrewshire, on January 19 1944.

Dr Dickson was small, red-haired, determined and forceful. She was a passionate advocate of women taking up careers in medicine, evidenced by an article written for the ‘Alexandra College Magazine’ in 1899.

She was a member of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Poor Law Guardians Association and believed that women should be poor law guardians. She also served as honorary secretary of the Committee for the Promotion of the Professional Education of Women.

Professor McGovern sums up Dr Dickson’s professional achievement thus: ‘Emily Winifred Dickson paved a path for women surgeons in Ireland. Never put off by barriers placed in her way, she became the first female surgical fellow in Great Britain and Ireland – a woman largely alone in a man’s field.

‘Gifted, academically and clinically, she campaigned with quiet insistence for women’s progress in professional and public life.’

Furthermore, she retired to raise a family of five children and then returned to medicine as the family’s breadwinner as a result of her husband’s long-term incapacity. She funded the university education of three of her five children.

Her eldest son, Dr Russell Dickson Martin, had a distinguished career as a doctor in Canada working among the Inuit and then in the Highlands and Islands Medical Service in Scotland.

In 2012 Dr Niall Martin, Dr E W Dickson’s grandson, donated her papers to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. They include certificates, medals, testimonials, correspondence and photographs ranging from the 1880s to the 1920s.

Dr E W Dickson’s only daughter, Elizabeth was an Oxford graduate, and in 1927 married Kenneth McKenzie Clark, the future Lord Clark, the art historian and broadcaster. Alan Clark, the Conservative MP, diarist and military historian, was their son. Colin, another son, was a distinguished filmmaker.