The traditional role of women in the medical profession was often seen as one of caring and not necessarily a role that required technical, pharmaceutical or even medical skills. Research at Huddersfield has revealed a new dimension to the type of work women occupied in the NHS during the mid-20th century.
While researching his book on hospitals in Leeds and Sheffield, Professor Doyle discovered documentary material showing mid-20th century women carrying out analysis in the pathology lab, taking charge of radiography and handling other high-tech procedures.
“Care to cure”
As the 20th century develops there has been a shift in culture in the medical profession from “care to cure” using new technologies, medication and pharmaceuticals. This focus has often seen men and the male doctor leading this area. This research reveals that in the early days of the NHS, women were just as likely to be found in labs and x-ray departments as at the bedside adopting a caring role.
A brochure issued in 1952 by the Sheffield Regional Hospital Board, reports on the previous five years of its activities – therefore covering the transformation to the NHS in 1948. It has a sequence of photographs showing women – some in nursing uniforms, some in lab coats – taking control of most aspects of hospital life.
This brochure demonstrates that during this time women were using microscopes, manipulating a huge two million volt X-ray machine, operating an iron lung, taking charge of the chest clinic and correcting children’s eyesight in the orthoptic department. Few men are to be seen. Most doctors would have been male, but there were actually very few doctors in hospitals at this period.
Professor Doyle has also accumulated evidence from overseas as well as the UK. For example, a 1950s blood transfusion centre in Rouen, France, was entirely run by women.
Reappraising the role and status of women
Professor Doyle now believes there is an opportunity for health historians to reappraise the roles and status of women in early 20th century hospitals and he hopes to carry out further research. Meanwhile, he has written a blog that includes the text and pictures of the 1952 Sheffield booklet.
He acknowledges that men did begin to exert predominance in healthcare technology and began to take over the narrative of the medicalization of healthcare.