Sunday, 9 June 2019

Two Female Physicians of the early 20th Century

(This post was sparked off by a recent similarly-themed one from 'lenathehyena')

A Flett from Findochty and a MacCallum of Muckairn Manse

By the 1920s the occurrence of women's names in the Medical Register (and Medical Directory) had become less of a rarity than it had been, although they were still very much in the minority and would remain so for many decades. As it happens, two such names in particular leapt to the eye in the course of previous research for this blog, those of Nelly Flett (no relation, as far as is known, to other Fletts looked at here) and Margaret MacCallum, sister of Dr John Cameron MacCallum.

Nelly Flett is not the only woman with that surname listed in the 1927 Medical Register (MR) - the others were Jessie from Uddington and Isabelle from Bathgate - but her address, 5 Seafield Street in the Flett stronghold, Findochty - links her geographically at least with the family background of Joe Flett and of two First World War Conscientious Objectors. She gained her registration on 10th May 1924, having qualified MB ChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) at Aberdeen. (Joe's elder brother Alexander was a doctor: MB ChB Aberdeen 1904; MD 1906).

The more likely of two Nelly Fletts in the 1901 Census was living at 18 Blantyre Place, Rathven (the parish/registration district, often used interchangeably with Findochty in the records). Her father John was a fisherman. (Joe's family were in the fishing and fish-curing business).
Findochty Harbour
In 1930 Nelly is still appearing (Registration being for life, unless struck off) but her address has changed to 'c/o National Bank of India, Bombay' - no clue as to her reason for emigrating, whether off her own bat or in order to join her future husband. 'Nelly Flett' disappears from subsequent MR volumes, to be replaced by (Mrs.) Nelly Tarlton:
British India Office Marriages - on 2-2-1929 at Calcutta, Bengal:
Nelly Flett (30) and Edward Smedley Tarlton (43).

The Bombay address continues through MR 1933 and 1936 (volumes in the National Archives library) but by 1939 Nelly is evidently back in Britain, at Cherington Park, Avening, Stroud.

The Tarltons duly appear in the 1939 Register of Electors online, although it doesn't give Nelly her due. Her 'MB ChB' is transcribed erroneously as if middle intials, 'Ma Mb C?' and her occupation as the default for married women,'Unpaid Domestic Duties'.  Her 26-12-1898. Edward is described as 'Engineer (Mechanic) Retired', d.o.b.19-1-1884.

It is not clear without further research whether or for how long Nelly practised medicine in Gloucestershire, where she evidently continued to live. She appears in the Medical Directory for 1942 and 1944 as 'Tarleton, Nelly, née Flett', and (consistently as Tartlton) at the same Avening address in the MR until 1966, when she would have been in her 68th year.

Incidentally, Alec Flett's daughter and Joe's niece Elizabeth Horne Flett joins her father on the MR listing in 1942, with the qualification MRCS Eng (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England) LRCP London (Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians of London) 1941. Her home address was 34 The Avenue, Bedford Park, Chiswick.

Margaret Nathaniel MacCallum, apart from being female, was a more likely candidate for the medical profession, being the daughter of a Church of Scotland minister and younger sister of a doctor. What's more, her family showed signs of holding progressive views. Her brother's stand as a 'conchie' is well documented, along with his concern for workers' health and rights, while her father Malcolm stood as a Labour and Land League candidate in the 1920 Argyll by-election.

Margaret, born in 1892, studied medicine at Edinburgh - scene of notorious rioting against women in the medical faculty a few decades earlier - and qualified MB ChB in July 1913, so that she appears in the Medical Register and Medical Directory from 1914. In 1916 she added a Diploma in Public Hea;th (DPH) from Birmngham, suggesting an inclination towards social involvement rather than an elitist career. Her address until 1921 is given as the family home, Muckairn Manse, Taynuilt in Argyllshire (now a Category B listed building).
Muckairn Manse, designed by Thomas Telford (1828)
Changes in the listings from 1922 are explained, like Nelly's at the end of the decade, by the fact that she married. This record too is slightly inexact, but clear enough in meaning:
McCallum, Margaret Nathan married Dunst[a]n, Robert at Newington in 1922.
Robert Dunstan was also a doctor, registered from 9-11-1900 (MRCS Eng, LRCP  London).

Margaret continues to appear under her married name, Dunstan (Mrs.) Margaret Nathaniel (formerly/née MacCallum), coincidentally also until 1966 like Nelly, when she would have been about 75. But for a time in the MR, at least until 1933, she had remained as MacCallum. Her address and Robert Dunstan's are the same: 84 Boyson Road, London SE17 during most of that time. In MD 1929 Robert has the additional address 'Paper Ridge, Temple'; this and other volumes show his additional attainments: Barrister-at-Law, Gray's Inn; Mem Med Leg (Medico-Legal) Soc; late Lt.RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps - one wonders how he got on with his brother-in-law John).

The Dunstans do not seem to show up on the 1939 Register of Electors (frustratingly England and Wales only) online, although the MD for that year lists them both as living at South Green Cottage, Fingringhoe, Essex. Twenty years later (MR 1959) they were at Ivy Lodge, Martock, Somerset, and from 1964 Margaret was at Shipley Avenue, Torquay.


Neither of these is a noted pioneer among women in the medical profession nor celebrated for having practised medicine in a particularly adventurous or dangerous environment, but they like many others are part of the story of what the pioneers enabled women to achieve, even if the process was slow.* It took even longer in some specialisms, as indicated by the moderately well-known 'riddle' about the surgeon who turns out (spoiler alert) to be a woman  - who would have thought of that?!

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