A rich and varied history exists for the role of women in surgery. Indeed, evidence from the tomb of Queen Shubad of Ur (around 3500 BC), the walls of Ramses the third’s sepulchre, and historical Egyptian records (1500 BC), reveals a heritage dating back 5500 years. One of the main surgical texts in the 11th century, the tetrabiblion, even described the work of a female Greco-Roman surgeon named Aspasia. Towards the Middle Ages however, the view of a role for women in surgery took a downhill turn. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, women were forbidden to practice surgery unless they were either taking over their husband’s craft in the event of his death or appraised and accepted by a panel of judges. Although barred from the craft, women were still known to practise surgery illegally and without training, and had to do so until the 19th century. Long overdue change at this point hailed the advent of modern surgical training.
In 1812, right here in Edinburgh, Dr. James Barry graduated from medical school at the young age of 17. He would go on to begin a highly distinguished career as a military surgeon, working abroad in locations like Cape Town and Trinidad and Tobago and finally overseeing military hospitals as inspector general. It was not until 1865, when Barry returned to Britain and later died from dysentery, that a startling discovery was made: Dr. James Barry was in fact a woman. Born in Ireland as Margaret Ann Bulkley, she took on the guise of James Barry in order to be able to study medicine. None of these revelations did anything to tarnish the reputation Dr James Barry had acquired as a highly skilled doctor with an excellent bedside manner.
Photograph of a painting of Dr. James Barry
Whilst unique in its own right the story of Dr. James Barry highlights a key message that rings true today. Skill and professionalism are the only factors that should matter in modern medicine. While we are no longer in a time when women need to masquerade as men to be given a fair chance, there are still huge strides to be taken towards achieving equality in the operating room. According to the Royal College of Surgeons of England, women comprised only 11.1% of consultant surgeons in England in 2016: an 8.1% increase since 1991. This means that over the course of 25 years from 1991 to 2016 the number of female surgical consultants grew at a rate of 0.324% each year. At the same rate it would take a staggering 121 years for this number to reach 50% and over. This not unique to England though, similar patterns and figures for women in surgery can be found all over the world.
Here at eoSurgical we firmly believe that ensuring fair representation in the operating room lies in supporting and facilitating the needs of female surgeons. From developing strong support networks to working to understand the issues that women in surgery face, it all works towards raising the profile of women in surgery and making them feel like the integral components of the profession that they are.
It is therefore with great pleasure that we announce the launch of our Women in Surgery Series. Join us on our journey as we meet with practicing female surgeons and gain further insight into being a woman in surgery and how we can better work towards fairer representation in the operating room.