Pechey-Phipson, Edith (1845–1908)

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Pechey-Phipson, Edith (1845–1908)

British physician who as senior medical officer of the Cama Hospital in Bombay, India (1886–94), was in charge of the first hospital in the world to be entirely staffed by women. Born Mary Edith Pechey in Langham, Essex, England, on October 7, 1845; died in Folkestone, England, on April 14, 1908; daughter of William Pechey and Sarah Rotton Pechey; married Herbert Phipson; no children.

Edith Pechey was born in England in 1845 to William Pechey, a Baptist minister, and Sarah Rotton Pechey , a woman who was unusually well educated for her day. After teaching school for a few years, Edith decided that she wanted to become a physician, a goal which represented a very high form of optimism for a woman in the 1860s, given that all British medical schools excluded women. Still, the world was changing rapidly, and in 1869, after a vigorous campaign by Sophia Jex-Blake , the University of Edinburgh admitted Pechey and three other women as its first female medical students. The victory, however, was by no means perfect. Edith, Jex-Blake, and, by start of term, five other women (Mary Anderson, Isabel Thorne, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans , and Emily Bovell ), now referred to as the "Edinburgh Seven," were segregated from the male students, attending separate lectures for which they had to pay their professors four times the regular tuition required from the male students. In order to afford her classes, Edith gave lectures on physiology to women in Leeds. The indignities endured by Pechey and the other women reached a new level in 1874, when the University of Edinburgh expelled them on the grounds that their admission had violated the institution's by-laws. Although the women sued, they lost the case and were thus forced to continue their medical educations elsewhere.

Pechey went to Switzerland, then the most progressive country in terms of providing women access to a medical education, and completed her studies at the University of Berne. After the English College of Physicians remained adamant in its refusal to license women, in the summer of 1877 the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland decided to admit Pechey, Jex-Blake, and several other women to their final examinations. Upon receiving her license, Pechey established a successful private practice at Leeds and Birmingham. She also took time off to study surgery at the University of Vienna. While her medical career flourished, she became an eloquent, passionate advocate of women's suffrage. In 1883, she would accept a position as senior medical officer in Bombay (modern-day Mumbai), India, at the first hospital not only specifically built for women but also staffed entirely by women.

Because India's religious traditions did not permit women to be treated, or even seen, by male physicians, there were no properly trained medical personnel in the Indian subcontinent to meet the medical needs of many millions of girls and women, other than a few missionaries with medical training. Pechey felt strongly that Christian missionary work and professional medicine of the highest caliber should be maintained as strictly separate realms. In an inaugural address she gave in 1878 at the London School of Medicine for Women, she exhorted her audience, mincing no words: "Christian England is renowned in every land for adulterated goods. Let it not be said that under the very guise of Christianity the medical help she sends out is also an inferior article."

By the 1880s, some limited medical training was beginning to be offered to women at the Medical College of Madras, and across India a few schools had been set up to train local midwives. India's elite, both Hindus and Parsees, sought to improve the situation, and in Bombay a wealthy Parsee philanthropist, Pestonji H. Cama, made a generous offer to endow a women's hospital, with the proviso that it would then be maintained by the government. An American businessman living in Bombay, George A. Kittredge, initiated the Medical Women for India Fund in order to gain the support of British and Indian philanthropists for the women's hospital project. The fund was successful, attracting such influential subscribers as Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill's father.

Kittredge offered Pechey the top post at Bombay's proposed Cama Hospital, at a guaranteed monthly salary of 500 rupees. She arrived in December 1883. Quickly revealing the decisiveness that would mark her entire tenure in India, Pechey insisted that she and her entire staff be paid on exactly the same scale as male physicians. Her argument, as compelling today as it was in 1883, was that lesser—and discriminatory—compensation could serve only to undermine the professional status of women while strengthening the ancient and lingering prejudice that women in medicine were not as well qualified as their male colleagues. Although promised, the salaries would be long delayed, as the hospital committee, the British government, and Pechey's supporters argued the merits of equal pay. In the end, Pechey and her staff won the battle.

Until the completion of the Cama Hospital in 1886, Pechey had a private practice and also administered a temporary medical dispensary for poor Indian women. Interested in the culture and civilization of India, she studied the Hindustani language. Indefatigable, Pechey became the moving force in a drive to set up a nurses' training school closely associated with the Cama Hospital. Soon, her efforts began to yield positive results, evidenced both by British women physicians who chose to have careers in India, and by growing numbers of Hindu women who began to study medicine in the United Kingdom and the United States. Despite strong local opposition, Pechey was a tireless advocate of expanded educational opportunities for Indian girls and young women. She also campaigned against what she saw as the social evils of child marriage and the proscribed remarriage of widows. In essence, she believed that India's women were ready for emancipation from the benighted and restrictive aspects of Hindu religious and social traditions.

In March 1889, Edith Pechey married Herbert Phipson, a like-minded social reformer. A wine merchant by profession, Herbert was also an enthusiastic naturalist. From this point on, Edith would be known as Edith Pechey-Phipson. As senior medical officer of the Cama Hospital, Pechey-Phipson successfully oversaw the administration of the complex institution. She also continued to study various aspects of Indian history and culture. Her scholarly interests were reflected in her selection to the Senate of the University of Bombay, making her the first woman to be so appointed. She was also elected a member of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Pechey-Phipson resigned from her Cama Hospital position in 1894 when diabetes began to seriously affect her health. She refused to abandon her career, however, and continued to maintain a private medical practice. When bubonic plague erupted in Bombay in 1896, she was a leader in the struggle to bring the pestilence under control. This outbreak was followed by a cholera epidemic and a widespread famine, and Pechey-Phipson remained active in the forefront of the medical response to the human suffering.

In 1905, after 22 years of medical work in India, she returned with her husband to England. Despite her fragile health, she remained committed to social change and invested much of her time in campaigning for women's suffrage. Edith Pechey-Phipson died after cancer surgery in Folkestone on April 14, 1908.


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Pechey-Phipson, Edith. Inaugural Address … London School of Medicine for Women. London: McGowan's Steam Printing, 1878 (History of Women Microfilm Collection, Reel 404, No. 2903).

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia