International Women's Day - celebrating the history of women in RCPCH and paediatrics

Today, over 60% of our 19,000-plus members are women - and both male and female paediatricians take up flexible working and less than full time training. But gender equality is a work in progress, and we must never be complacent.

This article was first published on 8 March 2019, and has been refreshed for 2021. 

When the British Paediatric Association (which became the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 1996) was founded in 1928 it had just 60 members. The group aimed to advance the study of paediatrics and to promote friendship among paediatricians. The members had a few things in common: they all worked in or had a professional interest in the practice or teaching of paediatrics or in paediatric research, and they were exclusively men.

In the 19th century, male doctors and institutions were strongly against the introduction of females as doctors and, as most universities in the UK prevented women from studying medicine, many studied abroad. The two wars gave women the opportunity to progress in medicine as medical schools in England allocated places to women to fill the spaces left by men but at the end of World War I, they were banned from studying medicine again until the 1930s, leading many women to study in Europe.

Career guide for married women pursuing paediatrics produced by the BPA, 1972 [archive reference: RCPCH/007/141]
Career guide for married women pursuing paediatrics produced by the BPA, 1972 [archive reference: RCPCH/007/141]

When the BPA was founded, there were female doctors practising medicine across the UK, but founding members of the Association were reluctant to invite them to be members, even though other Royal Colleges had both male and female members. Although the early rules did not state that membership was exclusively for men, only male doctors were invited to the first meeting. 

Excluding women from the BPA led to a difficult situation in 1938 when the BPA planned a joint meeting with the Canadian Society for the Study of Disease in Childhood (now the Canadian Paediatric Society). Women were allowed to be members of the Canadian society but not in the British Association, so 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”.

Minutes of a meeting of the Executive Committee, 1938 [archive reference: RCPCH/004/002/006]

Admitting women was discussed on numerous occasions in meetings of the group, and likely outside of these meetings too. In 1935, it was raised by a member at a meeting of the Executive Committee, but the minutes show it was agreed that no action would be taken. 

However, opinion did change and in 1944 a vote was taken at a meeting of the Executive Committee on whether to admit women as members. The minutes state that the BPA was “criticised as not representing those actively engaged in the Practice or Teaching of Paediatrics or in Paediatric Research.”

All members of the BPA were asked if they would be in favour of amending the rules for women to qualify or be elected as members and the response was to change the rules - although not by a large margin. Of 65 members, 45 responded, with 34 in favour of allowing women to become members, 12 against and one member remaining “doubtful”. A year later, 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. 

Minutes of a meeting of the Executive Committee, 1944 [archive reference: RCPCH/004/003/011]

However, female paediatricians still faced prejudice. Mildred Creak, the first purely child psychiatrist member of the BPA who joined the BPA in 1949, applied for over 90 jobs after qualifying before she secured a post, while June Lloyd was advised not to pursue paediatrics and instead follow a specialty that was less male-dominated than paediatrics. Most female doctors of the early 20th century were unmarried and childless, and many left the profession after beginning 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. 

While criticised for not representing women doctors when it began, the BPA quickly became supportive of all its members. June Lloyd became the first female President in 1988 and was instrumental in the BPA becoming a Royal College. She features as a supporter of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s coat of arms, which was designed in 1997 following the BPA becoming a Royal College, and is recognisable wearing modern academic dress and holding a rod with a double stranded helix representing the importance of science and genetics to advances in child health. It is one of few coats of arms to include a woman. 

Painted design of the RCPCH Coat of Arms featuring June Lloyd, 1997 [archive reference: RCPCH/009/001/014]

Despite its late acceptance of female paediatricians, support and acceptance grew quickly and today, over 60% of the RCPCH’s 19,000 members are women. Today, the College offers support to all its members throughout their careers, and both male and female paediatricians take up flexible working and less than full time training. But in 2021, gender equality is still very much a work in progress.

We continue to examine what we as a College can do to encourage more women to apply for high-level positions on Council and Committees. Much has been achieved since our foundation, but events like International Women’s Day remind us that we should never be complacent!

Find out more about the College's work on equality, diversity and inclusion