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The British Paediatric Association (BPA), which became the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in 1996, was founded in 1928. After an inaugural meeting of six attendees, its membership grew to 60 in the first year. The members had a few things in common: they all worked in or had a professional interest in practicing, teaching or researching paediatrics, and they were exclusively men.
In the 19th century, there was huge prejudice against women as doctors and many were unable to study medicine in the UK. World War I gave women the opportunity to progress in medicine as medical schools began allocating places to women to fill the spaces left by men away fighting, but after the end of the war, they were banned from studying medicine again until the 1930s. This led to many women leaving to study abroad, mostly in Europe, before returning to the UK to take up posts.
Most female doctors of the early 20th century were unmarried and childless, and many left the profession after starting a family. At this time, women also usually came into paediatrics from other routes, such as general practice or public health, rather than specialising from the start of their career.
Although there was nothing in the early rules of the BPA to say that membership was exclusively for men, only male doctors were invited to become members and attend the first meeting in May 1928. The aims established when the BPA was founded were to advance the study of paediatrics and to promote friendship amongst paediatricians, but this did not seem to extend to the female paediatricians male members were working alongside in hospitals.
This led to an awkward situation in 1938 when the BPA planned a joint meeting with the Canadian Paediatric Society. As women were allowed to be members of the Canadian society but not in the British Association, the BPA were in a situation where they were treating Canadian female doctors as their equals, but not the women they worked with. At a meeting of the Executive Committee, it was unanimously decided that female members of the Canadian Society would be invited to the meeting as they would be coming as members rather than individual guests. It was stated that “this should not be regarded as a precedent” and British women continued to be excluded.
Discussions of admitting women to the BPA began in the early 1930s after being raised by various members but each time it was agreed no action would be taken. It wasn’t until April 1944 that a vote was taken at a meeting of the Executive Committee on whether to admit women as members. Minutes of the meeting state that the BPA was “criticised as not representing those actively engaged in the Practice or Teaching of Paediatrics or in Paediatric Research”, reflecting the growing numbers of women in paediatrics.
All members were asking if they would be in favour of amending the rules for women to be elected as members and the response was in favour of changing the rules, although not by a large margin. Of the 65 members, 45 responded, with 34 in favour of allowing women to become members, 12 against and one member remaining “doubtful”. It was a step forward for equality in the profession, and at the next Annual General Meeting in 1945, the first women were elected into the BPA. Catherine Chisholm became an Honorary Member and Helen MacKay, Hazel Chodak-Gregory and Beryl Corner were made ordinary members.
While it was a step forward for the Association, female paediatricians still faced prejudice in their work. June Lloyd, the first female president of the BPA, was advised early in her career to pursue a specialty that was less male-dominated than paediatrics and Mildred Creak, the first purely psychiatrist member of the BPA who joined in 1949, applied for over 90 jobs before securing a post. It was the determination of women like these that aided the acceptance and rise of women in paediatrics.
While criticised in its early days for not representing female doctors, the BPA quickly became supportive all members and were recognised for their achievements, regardless of gender. Dame June Lloyd was instrumental in the BPA becoming the RCPCH and features as a supporter on the coat of arms alongside Thomas Phaire, and is one of the few coats of arms to include a woman.
Today, 60% of members are women and, although much has been achieved in the past 75 years, the RCPCH still continues to strive for gender equality and examines what we can do as a College to support and encourage women in the profession.
Archivist and Information Governance Co-ordinator
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Records of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, 1928 to Present Day on the Archives Hub.
RCPCH Archives online catalogue
Explore more Paediatrics collections on the Archives Hub
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