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History of Women in Surgery

WinS was formed in 2007 to take over from Women in Surgical Training (WIST). We believe that surgery should attract the candidates with the highest aptitude for surgery, regardless of their gender. Therefore, encouraging excellent women into the profession and supporting those within will help to maintain the quality of the surgical workforce.

As both WIST and WinS, we have worked to understand all issues affecting women, their careers and the factors influencing their success. We have built up strong relationships with government and other related organisations and we use these to try to ensure that issues affecting women in surgery are always considered in policy decisions. For example, we have been actively involved in the Women in Medicine group that was set up following the Chief Medical Officer’s 2006 annual report.

In 2000 WIST initiated a series of workshops for school students. These aimed to introduce the idea of a career in surgery to girls early in their careers. We now run many more of these events, and have broadened the target audience to now include boys as well as girls. More information on these workshops can be found in the Working at the College section.

WIST and WinS have:

  • contributed to research into a range of issues affecting women, their careers and factors influencing their success 
  • worked with government and related organisations ensuring issues affecting women in surgery are always considered in policy decisions 
  • provided an ongoing programme of national and regional events 
  • a network of over 5,000 women providing support and advice for each other 
  • an information service on surgical careers for women 

History of women surgeons 

The history of women as medical and surgical practitioners stretches back to at least 3,500 BCE, wall paintings in tombs and temples of ancient Egypt show them performing surgical procedures. However, women were discouraged or prevented from practicing surgery throughout history.

In the 19th century, women began to return to the medical profession, even though it remained virtually impossible for them to acquire medical training.

The extraordinary case of Dr James Barry (b. 1797), shows the lengths to which some women had to go to pursue their careers. A British army surgeon, small stature and feminine features, she pretended to be male and was renowned as a skillful operator. Her deception was not discovered until her death, and Dr Barry was officially buried as a man.

Unlike Barry, Elizabeth Blackwell practised as a woman, and trained at Geneva College of Medicine in New York, gaining her MD in 1849. This paved the way for many more women to gain admittance to medical schools.

Blackwell’s courage and tenacity inspired a whole generation of women, who began to demand access to medical education. Elizabeth Garrett heard Blackwell lecture in 1859, and chose to pursue a career in medicine. She later became the first women Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries entered on the Medical Register.

Pressure for reform continued. Sophia Jex-Blake founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, while still actively lobbying for a change in law. Even now there were still influential pockets of resistance, including the Board of Examiners of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, who, in January 1876, chose to resign rather than allow three women (including Jex-Blake) to sit the diploma in midwifery. Eventually, parliamentary legislation in 1876 opened up medical and university education for women. By the end of the nineteenth century, women could study medicine at virtually all British universities. 

Eleanor Davies-Colley became the first woman FRCS Eng. by examination in 1911, and since then, many more have followed. By 1919 there were only four women Fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons of England; by 1990, this number had risen to 320, and by 2009 to 1184, with an additional 1889 Members. More information about the proportion of women practicing in surgery can be found in our statistics section.

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