The first female surgeon in Britain


LIKE memorial stones in graveyards, there are many statues around London that meant a lot to the people who put them up, but little to us now after the passage of time. Hopefully, they will remain in place, like gravestones, for many generations so as not to disturb the souls of those who have gone before, and a reassurance that our own heroes will in turn be treated with respect.

In a corner of Tavistock Square sits an interesting dual bust of Louise Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925), looking out on the busy traffic rushing from Euston to Holborn. I am sure most of us have no idea who she is but the rarity of any statues of famous women in London should alert us to the fact she is something special.

Of the many thousands of public statues in London, I have identified only 10 of named women (there are lots of Queens, especially Victoria, nudes and ‘muses’ etc). Of these, two are nurses (a proposed one of Mary Seacole would make that three).

(The full list is: Blake, nurses Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, actress Sarah Siddons, dancer Anna Pavlova, secret agent Violette Szabo, writer Virginia Wolff, Salvation Army preacher Catherine Booth and prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s wife Margaret Ethel MacDonald. See http://www.secret-london.co.uk/Women.html)

(Others, such as former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the Guildhall Art Gallery, or prison reformer Elizabeth Fry in the Old Bailey, are not on open-air public view.)

Just reading Louise Aldrich-Blake biography makes you feel tired. The first female surgeon in Britain, she organised hospitals in France during World War I and sent female doctors out to Greece, Egypt and Malta. Besides working in military hospitals in France during her Christmas and summer holidays, she did double shifts at the Royal Free during the absence of male surgeons on war duty. She was also a visiting surgeon at two other hospitals. She finished her career as Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women.  Ill for 18months before she died, she operated a month beforehand and attended meetings a week before her death.

A friend’s obituary sums her up: “Miss Aldrich-Blake was not a fighting pioneer, though she could certainly sit tight and hold on against opposition, and this without any ill will to those fighting her; she expected the truth to win by its own weight.

“Second best was unknown to her. She was not a quick thinker, but her judgement was excellent. She gave full time and thought to every case, whether minor or major. As an operator she was bold, courageous, level-headed, thoughtful; her hands were good to watch at work – her fingertips obviously carried brains in them.

“Miss Aldrich-Blake was one of the first English surgeons to do Wertheim’s operation for carcinoma of the cervix uteri; she also developed and improved the technique of the abdomino-perineal route of excision of the rectum.” – Miss MM Chadburn MD.

I imagine every female surgeon in Britain comes by to pay her respect. I hope so.

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2 thoughts on “The first female surgeon in Britain

  1. Fascinating stuff. She sounds like a formidable woman. I note she was a ‘Miss’ – did she never marry? I guess she was too busy!

    1. Technically she should be a Doctor shouldn’t she?

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