Wilberforce, Octavia (1888–1963)

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Wilberforce, Octavia (1888–1963)

British physician . Born in 1888 in Lavington, Sussex, England; died in 1963 in Brighton; daughter of Reginald Wilberforce and Anna Wilberforce; great-grand-daughter of William Wilberforce (leader of the anti-slavery movement in England); educated at the London School of Medicine.

A pioneer in the field of women's health, Octavia Wilberforce came from a distinguished family of social activists. Born in 1888 in Lavington, Sussex, England, she was the great-granddaughter of William Wilberforce, leader of Britain's campaign against the slave trade during the late 1700s, and the granddaughter of Samuel Wilberforce, a former bishop of Winchester. Both independent-minded and intelligent, Octavia refused to settle for the roles of wife and mother expected of upper-class British women of her generation. A 1910 meeting with Louisa Martindale , a doctor, inspired Wilberforce to consider a career in medicine for herself. Her parents were less than enthusiastic about their daughter's desire to have a career, however, and they refused to finance her education. When the willful Wilberforce again frustrated her parents' efforts to see her settled in the traditional role through an arranged marriage with Charles Buxton, the highly eligible eldest son of Lord Buxton, by voicing her intent to choose a career over marriage, her father grew so frustrated with his daughter that he rewrote his will and disinherited her.

Fueling Wilberforce's desire to break with tradition was another friendship, this one with suffragist Elizabeth Robins . Robins agreed to help subsidize Wilberforce's education, while the rest of the money for her medical studies came from a surprising source: Lord Buxton, father of the spurned Charles. In 1913, Wilberforce enrolled at the London School of Medicine, and within a year was treating men who had been injured on the battlefields of World War I at St. Mary's Hospital. After the war Wilberforce moved to Dublin for a time before returning to Brighton to enter into private practice. Rekindling her friendships, she joined with Robins and Martindale in their successful efforts to gain public funding for a women's hospital; a short time after the 50-bed New Sussex Hospital for Women opened in the mid-1920s, Wilberforce was appointed head physician. Robins, Martindale, and Wilberforce continued their efforts to improve the region's medical care for women, founding a convalescent home for working women in the country town of Backsettown, near Brighton, that was designed to educate its patients in fitness, diet, coping with stress, and other health practices. Wilberforce retired from her position at New Sussex Hospital in 1954, although she remained an active proponent of women's health at Backsettown until her death in 1963.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut