London Statues of Medical Women

Episode 13: London Statues: Medical Women

How many statues of named women are there in London?

Listen to London Tour Guide Hazel and she tells the lives of four pioneering women who made their own contributions to medical science.

Three have a statue in London but one does not...

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Full Transcript

Hazel Baker: Hello, and welcome to our London History Podcast, where we share our love of London; it's people, places and history in 20 minute espresso shot episodes served with a dash of personality. I am Hazel Baker CEO of London Guided Walks providing private tours, treasure hunts, live London quizzes to Londoners and visitors alike.

To accompany this podcast we also have hundreds of London history-related blog posts for you to enjoy at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog. And now, on with the show. 

Statues have become a heated topic of late. The debate has caused passions to rise across the country. I am not here to discuss whether the current statues should exist or be on public display. I refuse to judge the decisions of people from the past, with our modern sensibilities. What we can do, however, is take account of what we do have. 

Taking away the Royals, how many statues of named people are there in London do you reckon? Well, I don't have a definitive answer. Your guess is as good as mine, but let me ask you maybe an easier question.

How many statues of named women are there in London? 17. Most of these women are from the 20th century. The public commemorations of women may be few, but they are a start. They cover health care professionals, nurses and a surgeon. And those from the arts, a novelist, a singer, and a theatre director, sports personalities including an Olympian boxer and an Olympic runner out social reformers and suffragettes, war heroes, and even a politician. There's a mix of White, Black, and Asian, Christian, Jewish, Quaker, and Muslim all wrapped up in 17 statues. 

Even though the statues are mostly concentrated within central London social reformer, Catherine Booth is in Champion Park, Camberwell. Theatre Director Joan Littlewood is outside the Theatre Royal, Stratford and Olympian athlete Nicola Adam is in Downhills Park, Haringey. If you're close to those and do pop and have a look and take photos and tag us and share your explorations. 

Following on from last week's episode with Monica Walker, from The Old Operating Theatre Museum and herb garret, I thought we'd focus on three women who really made a big difference with their contributions to medical science and all have statues dedicated to them in London.

And we have one surgeon and two nurses to talk about today. The first one is Louisa Brandreth Aldrich Blake and her statue is in Tavistock square. Dr. Blake was the first woman in Britain, to be awarded the degree of master of surgery in 1894. She was the first woman to hold the position of a surgical registrar in 1895.

She was the first underneath this test and lecturer on anaesthetics. In 1914, she became Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women. During world war I, unusually for a woman, she assisted in military hospitals, specifically in France and was named by her patients 'Madame la Generale'. She wrote to other female doctors to encourage them to assist in the cause and she developed a number of innovative surgical techniques saving the lives of soldiers, during world war II and her influence for other women was so great. The number who joined the school's medical field during world war I almost doubled. She was also the first reform operations for cervical and rectal cancers.

And she died December 1925 from cancer herself. In the same year, she had been named Dane commander of the order of the British empire also known as the most excellent order of the British Empire. Her statue is on the South East corner of Tavistock square and other statues in the same square include Mahatma Gandhi, we have two public statues of him, and also form a resident Virginia Woolf. Dr. Aldrich Blake statue is two-sided, so she's looking within the square and also out. Which means many more people can see and appreciate hers compared to other statues in the square and it's connected to a seating area inside and it was designed by Edward Lutyens and also Arthur George Walker. 

It's also Arthur George Walker who is the artist for our next statue of medical women in London. And this is maybe the most famous name, Florence Nightingale. Her statue is at the junction of Lower Regent Street and Pall Mall, facing the Duke of York column. It's a subsidiary part of the Guards Crimean War Memorial which was unveiled in 1859 and then in 1914 it was moved 30 feet backwards ie north up Lower Regent Street so we could fit in the statue of Florence Nightingale but also Sidney Herbert. He was a statesman, but also a very close friend of Florence Nightingale. Their statues are side by side. The bronze statue of Florence Nightingale shows her standing, holding in her right hand, an oil lamp.

And that's a reminder that she became known as 'The Lady with the Lamp', from a report in The Times and it says:

"She is a ministering angel. Without any exaggeration in these hospitals and as a slender form glides quietly along each corridor, every poor fellow's face softens with gratitude at the sight of her. When all the medical offices have retired for the night and silence and darkness have settled down upon these miles of prostrate sick, she may be observed alone with a little lamp in her hand, making her solitary rounds." 

And also the phrase was further popularised by American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and he wrote a poem dead Santer Philomena in 1857.

It says "Lo! in that house of misery, A lady with a lamp I see Pass through the glimmering of gloom And flit from room to room."

Underneath her statue pedestal inset in the granite pedestal are some bronze plaques showing some scenes of her work, such as interviewing officers attending a meeting of the nurses and also arranging transport for the wounded.

Her experiences as a nurse during the Crimean war were foundational in her views about sanitation. She helped move St. Thomas' hospital to its current location and the Nightingale Training School for nurses in 1860. Her efforts to reform health care greatly influenced the quality of care in both the 19th and 20th centuries. Nightingale's data analysis work as part of a Royal commission into the health of the army, highlighted a horrifying stat and that was 16,000 to 18,000 army deaths were preventable as they were from disease rather than battle. Now her polar area diagram, which is what we now know as the Nightingale Rose Diadem showed that the sanitary commission's work decreased the death rate. She's also the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society.

Nightingale passed away during the night at her Mayfair home in August, 1910 at the grand old age of 90 years. And there was a blue plaque there and to remind us of that. Her family declined a burial at Westminster Abbey. She had requested that she wanted a quiet and modest affair. And so she is now buried in Hampshire.

What you may not know is that on the site of the original Nightingale training school for nurses is the Florence Nightingale Museum. And this houses more than 2,000 artifacts commemorating the life and career of the Angel of the Crimea, including a statuette of Nightingale at the Crimean War Memorial, which I have already mentioned.

St. Thomas's hospital is home to another statue to a female nurse, Mary Seacole. Mary Seacole was a Jamaican-born nurse, daughter of a Scottish soldier and a free Jamaican woman. The statue is eight feet tall and weighs one and a half ton. And it was unveiled in 2016 by Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has a statue of her own in Exeter.

What I like about this statue is that it's more of an action shot. Seacole is seeing, wearing her medical bag over her shoulder and she's marching onto the battlefields of the Crimean war behind her is this big disc and the disc can be seen maybe to represent part of her story in her autobiography

'The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands', she describes waiting in the hallway of the Secretary of War to be accepted as an official member of the nursing team being sent to Crimea. When she realises that she's been stonewalled based on her ethnic origin, rather than a merit, we see in this statue that she's actually turning away, turning her back to the wall, this five tonne disc, and walking towards her calling.

On the floor behind the statue is a quote from 1857 from Sir William Howard Russell, who was a war correspondent at the time. And it says, "I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and sucker them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead." Mary Seacole is now on the national curriculum so young children can learn about her, how this phenomenal. Jamaican businesswoman was also a traveller and a healer who wanted to follow her calling. She wanted to go to the Crimea and help the wounded and save lives. Being refused by authorities, rather than accepting defeat, she independently, using her own money, built for a clinic and treated these wounded soldiers.

She was a practical and passionate woman who didn't let a little bit of red tape get in her way. And of course she was a battlefield nurse. She was there with the soldiers, doing what she did best. She had learned her nursing skills from a mother who had kept a boarding house for invalid soldiers in Jamaica.

When she went to Crimea, using her own money under her own steam, she arrived in Balaklava in February, 1855 and within two months had opened the 'British Hotel' where she provided food and medicine for all and tended also to the injured and there she earned the name Mother Seacole. There were reports of her tending the wounded, while under fire. And she was also the first woman to enter Sevastopol when it fell after the allied siege in September 1855. 

When she returned to England a year later, she was declared bankrupt. The Times and Punch ran campaigns in order to reimburse her. And in response to this effort Seacole writes a letter to punch, in 1857 and she writes that "Punch brings sunshine into the poor little room" to which she is reduced. 

There are two plaques to Mary in London. A green one on 147 George street, which is just off Edgware road and another on 14. Soho Square commemorating, where she lived and it was in Soho where she wrote her biography and it was probably still, she was still living there when it was published in 1857.

And it's the same month, July 1857, where of the sequel fund grand military festival was held in Kennington in the Crimea were widely celebrated. She even became a personal misuse to the Prince of Wales in 1881. She died at her home in Paddington, which is where the green plaque I mentioned is. 

So I've spoken about three remarkable women all within the medical profession.

Dr. Louisa Brandreth Aldrich Blake, nurse Florence Nightingale and nurse Mary Seacole. However, there is one woman who I cannot believe does not have a statue in London at the moment. And that is Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. She was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain and she lived in upper Berkeley Street and there is yes, a blue plaque to her, but where's the statue?

She was a pioneering physician, political campaigner and suffragette among her many achievements. She was also the co-founder of the first hospital to be staffed by women. She was the first Dean of a British Medical School, the first female doctor of medicine in France. And the first female in Britain, she was inspired to become a doctor after making the acquaintance of Elizabeth Blackwell, an English woman who had immigrated with her parents to the United States and had qualified as a physician from the university of Geneva, after many fruitless attempts to be accepted into American medical schools.

And she has self inspired many other women by paving their way, setting a precedent for aspiring female physicians and championing women's rights. She was taught the three Rs from her mother at home. Then for three years, had a governess before moving to Blackheath, where she was at school, which was run by the step aunts of poet Robert Browning.

And then she was taught English literature, French, Italian, and German, as well as department. But Elizabeth was dissatisfied. She knew her calling late elsewhere are to completing her education. She was able to go abroad and tour and also visited the Great Exhibition. 

15 years later, Elizabeth had joined forces with some of her feminist friends to form a women's discussion group called the Kensington Society which organized a petition asking parliament to grant women the vote. This petition was rejected. It was supported by liberals such as John Stuart Millsand Henry Fawcett, the MP for Brighton. He and Elizabeth became friendly, a shared causes and all that, but Elizabeth actually rejected his marriage proposal as she believed it may damage her career and Fawcett later married Elisabeth's younger sister millicent who went on to become a leader and the constitutional campaign for women's rights, women's suffrage. And she went on to improve women's opportunities for higher education by co-founding new room college in Cambridge in 1871. 

Although licensed to practice medicine, Elizabeth could not take up a medical post in any hospital in the UK. So with her father bankrolling her, she opened her own practice at 20 Upper Berkley Street. And that's where a little later St. Mary's dispensary for women and children. It wasn't a great start however as patients were scarce. They were really reluctant to consult with a female physician. However, an outlet break of cholera threatened and citizens, both rich and poor rushed in desperation to see her and within the first year, she tended to 3,000 new patients. 

At the age of 72, she became a member of the militant Women's Social and Political Union, WSPU and they stormed the Houses of Parliament. She then she went on a lecture tour with Anne Kenney. However, she withdrew from the WSPU 1911 after the militant activity increased, as she objected to their arson campaign.

Like so many Victorian women, Elizabeth suffered the loss of one of her children. One of her two daughters died of meningitis in infancy of the surviving son and daughter. It was the daughter Louisa who followed in her mother's footsteps, becoming a surgeon and suffragettes herself. Co-founding the Women's Hospital Corps during World War I and publishing a biography of her mother, based on family letters, in 1939.

All of these women overcame obstacles in order to save and change lives and should be celebrated and remembered for their efforts. By having plaques and statues, that's just one way of remembering them and celebrating them. Of course, it also means that we need to keep telling their stories. we also need to be writing them in literature, in plays and keeping them front of mind.

With a statue you can only do so much. But they are a visual and a physical reminder, telling us that we can be the better version of ourselves, interrupting our everyday life. 

What statues of women would you like to see on the streets of London? Let me know by messaging me on social media, via email, or by leaving a voice message on my website.

If you've enjoyed the show and have found it useful, then please do leave a review on iTunes it's quick to do and it really would mean the world to me. Thanks to everybody who's provided feedback or indeed left a review, a latest one by WestSussexMom. Thank you very much. "High energy and very entertaining." I am trying my best. It is really weird sitting here and talking to myself all day. 

I'll see you next week for our next episode, but if you can't wait that long, then check out our blog, which is full of interesting posts about London's history, all the way from the Romans to history being made today. And that's londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog.

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