International Women’s Day 2018

For International Women’s Day we are publishing a post from our friends at Poole’s Health Record.

The first woman doctor in Poole?

The people of Poole had to wait longer than many others to be able to consult a female doctor in their town. It was well into the twentieth century that the first ones crop up, although there were 495 women doctors in the whole of England and Wales by 1911. It is also far from clear just who was the first in Poole.

There are, however, two who stand out:

Dr Enid Walters was living in Broadstone in 1911, and the census that year clearly recorded her occupation as Doctor. But Broadstone was then not part of Poole; it wasn’t until 1933 that it was incorporated into the Borough. Also there is no evidence that she actually practised in Poole, or even Broadstone.

Dr Mary Jeremy was definitely a doctor, but was a resident of Bournemouth. However there are reports in the local newspapers from 1909 about her involvement in a professional capacity with the Poole School of Mothers. This was, however, probably a voluntary role.

If both of these women are discounted, then we turn to Dr Ruth Scutt, who was born in Poole in 1892, qualifying as a doctor in 1919. She certainly lived in the town for a while after qualifying, but again it’s not clear she ever practised in Poole. But perhaps she was the first woman doctor born in Poole.

Dr Laura Horne didn’t arrive in Poole until 1922, surely far too late to count as the first? But she did stay in Poole from that time on, did practice as a doctor in the town, and became well known for her contribution to healthcare in Poole.

Dr Emmie Fenwick was another later arrival, coming to Poole in 1924, and then practising from premises in Parkstone Road. She achieved much during the Second World War, and returned to Poole late in life.

History doesn’t have to provide clear answers. What stands out from each of their stories is the remarkable things they achieved as pioneering women doctors.

Enid Margaret Walters was born in Dover in 1882, daughter of a clerical schoolmaster, who took his family to the Isle of Man when he was appointed to King William’s College. He died in post there in 1899, and Enid moved to Nottingham to be Lady Dispenser at the Children’s Hospital. She enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women, qualifying in 1908. She was briefly in Cheltenham, before moving to Broadstone, where the census records her living with her widowed mother at Foxtons, a large house. However her mother died that year and Enid took up short term medical posts in Hull, at Devon County Asylum and the New Hospital for Women in London, despite still being listed as living in Broadstone. Then in July 1916 she volunteered, along with other women doctors, to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a civilian doctor and work at hospitals in Malta with the wounded evacuated from the Gallipoli disaster. The next year she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital group who ran the hospital at Villers-Cotterets, an outpost of the Royamount Abbey Hospital, close to the front line in Normandy. Reports state the surrounding countryside was stripped of trees, trenches lined the roads, and shell holes up to 30 feet deep splattered the fields, villages being reduced to piles of stone. As one of only 3 doctors at the time at Villers-Cotterets, this must have been a terrifying experience. She was eventually sent home, apparently exhausted, in September 1918. Her postwar career included working again in Hull, although strangely still listed in directories as living in Broadstone,  By 1929, finally, there is clear evidence of a local medical post, as an assistant medical officer for Dorset County Council, though unclear where. By 1939 she had retired and died in 1960 living in Wimborne.

Mary Ethel Jeremy was living with her widowed mother in the 1911 Census, listed as a Medical Practitioner. She was born in Dublin in 1865 to an Irish mother and a Welsh father, but in 1901 was living in Surrey after the death of her father. It was in her mid-30s when Mary  took the plunge and enrolled at the London School of Medicine for Women in London, qualifying in 1905. She worked at the Evalina Children’s Hospital in Southwark before taking the huge step of travelling to take up a post at the Memorial Hospital, Ludhiana in India. She was back within a few years, however, as in October 1909  she is recorded as being at a fundraising concert for the Poole Mothers’ Association, and the next year as judging a baby contest at the Association with 2 male doctors. The Mothers’ Association became Poole School for Mothers providing antenatal and child care advice and support for the poorer townsfolk, linked to council-run services, but run as a voluntary agency. It had branches in the Poole districts of Newtown, Hamworthy and Longfleet. In 1915 Mary was still involved, giving a talk to the mothers on diphtheria, and examining the physique of babies at the School; that year she also did similar work in Bournemouth at the Free Church Babies Home. During the First World War Mary was also active in supporting the work of the British hospital at St Malo, and she spent some time working at the Southampton University War Hospital. In 1919 she was awarded the OBE, presumably for her wartime work. She was an active participant in the local branch of the British Medical Association, alongside Dr Evelyn Bond, probably Bournemouth’s first woman doctor. Mary retired to live in Colehill, and died in 1935.

Ruth Mary Scutt was born in Poole on 26th December 1892 to a well-known local family, living at Seldown Towers in Seldown Road.  Her father was a wealthy corn merchant and Ruth was educated at Bournemouth High School and went on to London University. She was a medical student there in 1914 at the London School of Medicine for Women and qualified as a doctor in 1919. She worked as House Physician and Resident Medical Officer at the Westminster Hospital and the Children’s Hospital in Bethnal Green. She was listed as living in Poole up to 1923, but in 1924 she altered her life completely by travelling to India to take up a post there. She married Richard Purssell OBE, a high-ranking official in the Indian Government Telegraph Service and Director of Calcutta Tramways, and returned to England in 1928 with a husband and 2 children. Their address was then St Ann’s Court, Canford Cliffs, Poole. Ruth may not have practised again and is shown as retired in 1939. She died in 1984 living in Guildford.

Laura Katherine Maule Horne may be remembered today primarily as the wife of the town’s Medical Officer of Health, Robert Maule Horne, but should be better known as being the driving force behind the East Dorset Shilling Fund, which raised funds for Cornelia Hospital’s new maternity ward in 1930. She was Welsh, and the sister of Clement Davies, one-time leader of the Liberal Party. She had qualified in 1913, and worked at a war hospital in Edinburgh and then as an Assistant Medical Officer of Health in Burnley. Like Mary Jeremy she worked with local groups in child health, until the Second World War when she became a casualty officer in Poole. She certainly supported her husband’s public health work, and in 1927 actually took over from him for several weeks when he was injured after an accident at work. Poole never had another female Medical Officer of Health, even Acting! She died in Poole in 1967.

Emmie Dorothy Vivian Fenwick was born in 1896 in London, daughter of Dr Samuel Fenwick. She followed him into the medical profession, studying at the London School of Medicine for Women and qualifying in 1922. She held posts at St Mary’s Hospital in London. By 1924 she was living at 94 Parkstone Road, Poole, listed as surgeon and physician, which means she was in practice. By 1930 she was back in London. However in 1941 she joined the RAF Medical Branch, and by the end of the Second World War had been promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader, and was awarded the MBE.  After the war she worked for London County Council, but returned later to Poole, as she died in the town in 1972.

These were the first lady doctors in Poole, very few in number. It wasn’t until the Second World War when the town’s main hospital, the Cornelia, employed female medical staff. The first was probably Miss M. Ostererreicher, a Czechoslovak citizen appointed as House Physician in 1939. The same year the hospital took on Dr Laura Horne, Dr Katherine Andrew, and Dr Hilda de Peyer as Casualty Officers.

Today of course the gender composition of doctors in the country is near parity, and female medical students have outnumbered males. The early decades of the twentieth century saw women only very slowly enter Poole’s medical profession. However, if the identity of the first lady doctor is unclear, perhaps it is better just to contemplate their stories.


Written to coincide with Poole Museum’s exhibition Her Story: Tales of Poole Women Past and Present.