Women in medicine: Margaret Whitehead and Rosemary Rue

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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 Dame Margaret Whitehead is an internationally renowned authority on inequality and human health, and WH Duncan professor of public health at the University of Liverpool, the first woman and first non-medic to hold the position in its 105-year history.

After studying biology at York, Margaret committed herself to public health. Her impact in the field has been enormous, from the publication of The health divide in 1987 to the development of the world’s most widely used model on the social determinants of health in 1991. She has worked extensively for the World Health Organization and was a member of the Acheson Committee, the report of which led directly to the introduction of the world’s first national health inequalities strategy.

Awarded a damehood in 2016, Professor Whitehead’s citation read ‘she has made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of health inequalities, with a significant influence on public health internationally.’

It seems barely credible now that, as late as 1950, medical schools such as the groundbreaking Royal Free were dismissing female students because they had married. This is what happened to Rosemary Rue, but she was undeterred and overcame this, and many other, difficulties to become an inspirational medical officer as well as a national leader.

Margaret Whitehead on her inspiration Rosemary Rue

Dame Rosemary Rue (1928–2004) was a determined champion of women in the medical professions, overcoming setbacks to leave an imprint on the nation’s health services.

Although struck by tuberculosis and peritonitis as a child, Elsie Rosemary Laurence was admitted to the London School of Medicine for Women aged just 17. Following her marriage, the school refused to allow Rosemary (who now used her married name, Rue) to continue training. Undaunted, she took up a place at Oxford and qualified in 1951.

Dr Rue then sought hospital work, encountering difficulties. By this time she was a mother, and married women, especially young mothers, were routinely refused roles. Concealing both her marriage and motherhood, she gained a position, only to be sacked when her secrets were revealed.

Moving to general practice, Dr Rue became one of the last people in Oxford to contract polio. After a long period of rehabilitation, the illness left her permanently dependent on a walking stick.

Rosemary re-entered general practice before progressing to public health. Shaped by experience, she sought integration between health and social services and provision of the best possible opportunities for female clinicians.

Dame Rosemary Rue had many and varied achievements, from designing health services for the new town of Milton Keynes, to devising the first scheme to allow women doctors with children to work part time while in training. She was the first female president of the Faculty of Public Health, president of the British Medical Association and president of the Medical Women’s Federation. She was awarded the DBE in 1989.