Kenneth Collins on patient attitudes to women doctors

kenneth_collinsHetty Ockrim qualified in medicine in 1943, and after a short spell as a general practitioner in a mining community in wartime Blantyre and some hospital experience in obstetrics, she entered general practice in a working class area of Glasgow in June 1946 in partnership with her husband. After she retired in 1989, she carried out an oral history project interviewing patients on their understanding of health issues and the changes in the delivery of care during her long career.

This important collection of patient attitudes is now being systematically studied and is yielding much valuable testimony on a wide range of topics. One common theme was the attitude to women doctors. While working in Blantyre she was aware that the mining community had no experience of a woman doctor, but a testimonial following her work there describes how she won the men over with her care, compassion, and determination. Many of her first patients in Glasgow welcomed a doctor with obstetric abilities given the predominance of home deliveries at the time. However, this view was not universal. As one of the interviewed said “The entrenched thought of people those days, nobody wanted to go to the lady doctor,” and another, “I think in the old days very few people went to you because you are a lady. My son-in-law always used to go to you and they would say ‘Look at that Jessie sitting there.'” Indeed, there were two versions of an episode, around 1950, when the waiting room was full but with everyone waiting for the male doctor. One interviewee recalled: “…the next thing Dr Ockrim flares out of her room, stands with her hands on her hips and says: ‘I’m a doctor too, you know—NEXT!’ Everyone just sat with their mouths open and there were a few laughs. She was quite right.” In the 1970s there was an influx into the neighbourhood of patients from Pakistan and India who had a more conservative view of gender issues: “It is our religion. We always went to a female rather than a male doctor.”

Some complex testimony from a victim of family physical and sexual abuse gave a different viewpoint on the issue. “I used to always have to talk to a man doctor. I don’t know. I think I was more dominated by a male. I reckon that’s the answer.” The patient eventually found her way to Hetty Ockrim, seeing in her position of authority a sense of the ability to control that had been lacking in her own life, and the opportunity to break away from her abused past. “Aye, I felt kind of close, but no’ close enough to tell you (about the abuse). There was something powerful about you that I liked. You used to say to my da’—Are you still drinking? Do you not think it’s about time you stopped. You were saying this and I thought that’s great. My ma couldnae dae that and I used to see you as stronger than my da.”

This oral history project forms the legacy of Hetty Ockrim and patient and practice staff recollections cover the period of time from the 1930s to 1989.

Kenneth Collins, senior research fellow, Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow

Conflict of Interest: Kenneth Collins was a partner in the Cessnock/Midlock practice from 1977 to 2007 and is the son of the late Hetty Ockrim (Collins)