Women in medicine: Jenny Higham and Marie Stopes

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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 Jenny Higham is principal of St George’s, University of London, the first woman to hold the position in the medical school’s history of more than 250 years. She is also the first female chair of the Medical Schools Council, and continues to practise as a consultant gynaecologist.

Graduating from University College London Medical School in 1985, Jenny quickly specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology, gaining membership of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1992, and becoming a fellow in 2005.

She has a distinguished career in academia and medical education, including 18 years at Imperial College London, where she held senior roles and was instrumental in the establishment of the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine in Singapore.

Professor Higham has received the ‘mentor of the year’ award at the Women of the Future Awards, and a president and rector’s award for outstanding contribution to teaching at Imperial College.

Born in the reign of Queen Victoria, Marie Stopes was a pioneer of the 20th century in the field of birth control. Through her books, practical advice on contraception, and the family planning clinics that she subsequently opened, she released women from the endless treadmill of producing children, giving them time to order their own lives and develop their own careers for the first time in history.

Jenny Higham on her inspiration Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes (1880–1958) was a gifted scientist and academic, popular writer and hugely influential 20th-century campaigner for women’s rights and birth control.

Marie studied botany and geology at University College London, graduating first class with honours in 1902. A PhD from the University of Munich followed, making her among the first British women to receive a doctorate. She was also the first woman to be elected to the Linnean Society of London, was appointed a fellow at her alma mater and held the post of lecturer in palaeobotany at the University of Manchester, becoming that institution’s first female academic.

During the dissolution of her first marriage, Marie began writing Married love. Published in 1918, the work acknowledged female sexual desire, offered contraceptive advice and advocated for marriage as an equal partnership. Massively controversial, the book proved a commercial hit, selling over 750,000 copies in the UK alone.

Moved in part by the many letters she received, Marie Stopes became practically involved in providing birth control. In 1921, in the face of trenchant opposition, she opened one of Europe’s first family planning centres, the Mother’s Clinic in Holloway, London. It moved to the Fitzrovia area in 1925, where it remains today.

Though also active in the (now discredited) eugenics movement, and as a writer of poetry and drama, Marie Stopes is best remembered for her seminal publications on reproductive health and female emancipation, and the network of life-changing clinics she established and funded.