Emma Vardy: Celebrating women’s achievements on #IWD2021

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #choosetochallenge. After hearing recently of yet another NHS building to be named after an eminent male surgeon, I did on just that on 18th February with the tweet “Can anyone anywhere tell me about an NHS building named after a woman?” After initial reminders of Royalty, Saints, and the Nightingale hospitals, what I was found was a rich tapestry of the contributions from women to healthcare and the NHS from all four nations of Britain and beyond.

These included pioneers in medicine such as: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to qualify in medicine and surgery (University College Hospital and Ipswich Hospital); Anne Ferguson, a gastroenterologist and expert in inflammatory bowel disease (Western General Edinburgh); Carys Bannister, the first female British neurosurgeon (University of Manchester); Marjory Warren, founder of Geriatric medicine (Chelsea and Westminster); and Joan Bicknell, first female professor of psychiatry (Springfield hospital, Tooting). There were also pioneers in nursing such as: Mary Seacole, British-Jamaican who nursed during the Crimean War (Salford University); Betsi Cadwaladar, who worked alongside Florence Nightingale (Welsh Health board), Edith Cavell, British nurse who saved lives of soldiers from both sides during World War I  and was executed as an alleged spy (multiple buildings including University of East Anglia); and Princess Campbell, the first Black ward sister in Bristol after initially being passed over for the job (Southmead hospital and University of West England).  

While discovering some wonderful women within the medicine and nursing, what struck me was just how much these women had achieved and the disproportionate lack of recognition of their achievements in comparison to men. How can this be right at a time when numbers of male and female graduates in medicine are broadly similar, why do we continue to honour deceased white men more than others?      

The George Elliot hospital in Nuneaton is named for one of Britain’s greatest authors Mary Ann Evans. The irony that the George Elliot was her pseudonym wasn’t lost on me.  

Two particular women stood out for me. Firstly, Mary McGeown, an Irish nephrologist who established Northern Irelands dialysis service for whom the dialysis unit at Belfast city hospital. Her career was described as she “overcame prejudice by being so outstanding that even the upper ranks of a misogynist profession had to acknowledge her.” The second was Carys Bannister, who as well as being an accomplished neurosurgeon, was also a rally driver, and is still fondly remembered for her kindness to medical students and for taking her six dogs on ward rounds. 

It was also pleasing to hear of buildings named after outstanding colleagues in geriatric medicine; the Kate Granger building at the University of Surrey, named after a geriatrician who campaigned for compassionate care who died aged 34 from a rare sarcoma in 2016. 

I also wondered, who chooses the names and how transparent is the process? The Evelina London children’s hospital is named after the wife of the Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. The Baron endowed the original hospital. There are a number of Annie Zunz wards in London hospitals following generous donations from her husband German iron merchant Siegfried Rudolf Zunz. Sometimes names for wards and hospital buildings are chosen by patients. But for those named after people in the medical or nursing profession, it is achievements that counts, and is this proportionate and equal for men and women? And who decides what achievement is sufficiently prestigious?

A wall celebrating women’s achievements at Royal Free Hospital is perhaps not surprising as it was the first teaching hospital in Britain to admit women for training in 1877. It is lovely to hear of these pioneers celebrated, and it’s easy with a quick internet search to find out more about them. But for many names, its quite hard to discover the woman. Particularly poignant was a response from Henry Chandler, an orthopaedic surgeon, who told me about his mother Jane, a GP after whom Chandler House primary care building in Wigan was named.  She was chief executive for the Primary Care Trust and instrumental in getting GPs in Wigan out of converted terrace houses into bespoke clinics, all while being treated for metastatic breast cancer.  

What was evident in this informal social media experiment was the lack of names of women from ethnic minority backgrounds despite a long and widespread history of service in British healthcare. 

So on this international women’s day, I #choosetochallenge you to find out more about the women behind the names, to influence the naming of new buildings, and to name clinics, wards, and buildings after more women, and more women from an ethnic minority background who have contributed to the rich fabric of our NHS.

Emma Vardy is a Consultant Geriatrician at Salford Royal NHS foundation trust.

Twitter: @emmavardy2 

Competing interests: none declared.