Ladies of Medicine

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, a good opportunity for us to look at the role of women in the Post Office. As this is such a diverse subject we will focus on the Medical Department and the appointment of the first ‘Lady Doctor’, or Female Medical Officer.

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

Female doctor examining medical reports at Post Office Headquarters (Green Paper 31 - the Post Office Medical Service, POST 92)

The origins of the medical department date back to 1855 when the first full time (male) Medical Officer was appointed. His duties included inspecting candidates for appointment to the Post Office, providing medical care and assistance to staff on lower pay grades, and investigating cases of sick absence. It was not until 1883 that the first Female Medical Officer was appointed. This appointment was made on the recommendation of the Postmaster General at the time, Henry Fawcett, who argued:

Without depreciating in any degree the value of the services of the Male Medical Staff, I am convinced, from consideration of a general character, that the peculiar nature of ailments from which women suffer renders them in a special manner susceptible of treatments by duly qualified female practitioners

(POST 64/1)

The number of women employed in the Post Office Headquarters at this time was 1150, compared to 7250 men. Initially the Treasury rejected Fawcett’s request for this new role, on the grounds that the number of women employed was too low. However Fawcett persevered, claiming that the number of women employed was likely to increase, and eventually the Treasury accepted his recommendations.

Miss Shove was appointed the first Female Medical Officer in the Post Office in March 1883. She was entitled to one month’s leave each year (the same as the male Medical Officer), but had to provide a substitute to cover her absence. In contrast the male Medical Officer had a deputy and they covered each other’s leave. Her salary was £300 a year, increasing by £20 a year to a maximum of £450. This was lower than the salary of £400-£600 recommended by Fawcett, and considerably lower than the £800-£1000 paid to the male Medical Officer. Regulations established at this time stated that;

the female Medical Officer will, in ordinary cases, address her reports direct to the Secretary, but will confer with the Chief Medical Officer on all occasions when it may be necessary.

(POST 64/1)

By 1894 the number of women employed at the Headquarters had increased to 2807 (the number of men stood at 10345). Spencer Walpole, the Secretary to the Postmaster General, applied to the Treasury to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, and to appoint an Assistant Female Medical Officer. The Treasury approved the appointment of the Assistant Female Medical Officer, but refused to increase the Female Medical Officer’s salary, on the grounds that the appointment of an assistant would ease her workload. Miss Madgshon was appointed Assistant Female Medical Officer in October 1895.

As the role of the Medical Department began to extend to other major cities, further Female Medical Officers were appointed. Almost immediately after the appointment of Miss Shove in London, a Female Medical Officer was appointed in Liverpool. By 1892 a female Medical Officer had also been appointed in Manchester, and consideration was being given to the issue in Glasgow. However, after consulting with the Supervisor of Female Telegraphists and her 4 Assistant Supervisors, it was felt that this would not be popular among the female staff;

from what she tells me, it appears that none of themselves viewed the suggestion with much favour, and the belief of all was, that of the female staff generally, the number who would prefer to be under the care, medically, of a lady would be found to be very small

(POST 64/1)

Similar doubts had apparently been expressed in Liverpool initially, but it quickly transpired that the women were actually less hesitant and more willing to consult a female Medical Officer about their ailments. However in Glasgow there was a further complication of no female physician practicing in the district, and therefore it was decided not to pursue the appointment of a Female Medical Officer at that time.

The employment of ‘Lady Doctors’ within the Post Office highlights wider developments in the late nineteenth century. These include the growth in the number of women practicing medicine, although it should be noted;

at the time of the [first] female Medical Officer’s appointment members of the medical profession were adverse to women practitioners in England. Most professional men still have objections to confer with lady doctors either over their patients or in connection with candidates for employment in the service

(A Wilson, Medical Officer in Chief, 30 Dec 1897, POST 64/1)

The role of Henry Fawcett in pushing for the appointment of the first female Medical Officer should not be understated, given his wider involvement in women’s issues. Finally the need for a Female Medical Officer stemmed from the increasing numbers of women being employed by the Post Office, thus the growth and development of the medical department mirrored changes in the wider Post Office workforce.

– Helen Dafter, Archivist

More information on the employment of women in the Post Office can be found on our website.

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