Women in medicine: Eilis McGovern and Emily Winifred Dickson

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The Women in medicine project showcases a number of today’s leading female clinicians and the women from the history of medicine who have inspired them. 

Professor Eilis McGovern was, in 2010, the first woman to be elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland since its foundation in 1784.

A student at University College Dublin, Eilis excelled academically, winning the gold medal in surgery and silver medal in medicine. In 1982 she obtained her fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, coming top in the fellowship examination.

Awarded a European scholarship, Eilis studied in Paris, subsequently working at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, USA. On returning to Ireland, she was appointed consultant cardiothoracic surgeon at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, before moving to St James’s Hospital, where she established a new cardiac surgery unit.

Professor McGovern is currently national programme director for medical training at Ireland’s Health Service Executive. She has received numerous honours and awards recognising her outstanding work, including an honorary fellowship of the American College of Surgeons.

Emily Winifred Dickson paved a path for women surgeons in Ireland. Never put off by barriers placed in her way, she became the first female surgical fellow in Great Britain and Ireland – a woman largely alone in a man’s field. Gifted, academically and clinically, she campaigned with quiet insistence for women’s progress in professional and public life.

Eilis McGovern on her inspiration Emily Winifred Dickson

Dr Emily Winifred Dickson (1866–1944) was the first female fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, making her, in 1893, the first woman to hold a fellowship of any college of surgeons in Great Britain or Ireland.

Initially hoping to study medicine at Trinity College Dublin, Emily was prevented by the institution’s exclusion of female students. Instead, she enrolled at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The only female student, she shone academically, winning the silver medal for surgery and bronze for anatomy. After graduation, in receipt of a scholarship, she travelled to Vienna and Berlin.

Returning to Dublin, Dr Dickson was refused a position at the Rotunda Hospital because of her gender. Undaunted, she practised as a gynaecologist, ultimately at the city’s Richmond Hospital. Balancing clinical work, teaching and publication, she gained both an MD and an MAO in 1896. Three years later, amid student protests, she was appointed an examiner in midwifery and gynaecology.

Although Dr Dickson gave up work after her marriage, she resumed following the return of her husband, invalided, from the First World War. She continued in general practice, and as a medical officer of health, up to her death.

Throughout her life, Emily Winifred Dickson was a keen philanthropist; she was also deeply commited to women’s emancipation, both in the medical profession and in the wider world. Her personal lobbying helped to gain female admission to the British Medical Association, of which she became one of the first women members in 1892.