Women on Walls: RCSI showcases 8 great women of healthcare history

5 Mar 2019

Image: Maxwell Photography

RCSI, Accenture and Business to Arts have teamed up to unveil a landmark Irish portrait collection depicting historical female leaders in healthcare.

A new series of portraits of historical female leaders has been unveiled at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI).

Women on Walls at RCSI in partnership with Accenture recognises the pioneering achievements of a group of eight extraordinary women. The portraits, which were unveiled today (5 March), aim to enhance the visibility of historical female leaders in healthcare to inspire future generations.

The portraits will now hang in the boardroom of RCSI’s historic building on St Stephen’s Green and can be seen at scheduled times throughout the year.

In 2016, the Women in Walls campaign commissioned five portraits of leading female academics for the Royal Irish Academy. This time last year, artists were invited to submit a proposal to Business to Arts, which managed the project. A selection committee identified six artists who were commissioned to paint the portraits. The artists have worked with RCSI archivists to research their subjects and complete the portraits.

RCSI CEO Prof Cathal Kelly said the organisation was immensely proud to unveil the portraits. “These pioneers made significant contributions to education and healthcare here at RCSI, in Ireland and much further afield,” he said.

“We hope that by recognising them through this landmark initiative, we might inspire future generations of women and girls to pursue a career in healthcare and science.”

Accenture’s Dr Michelle Cullen said the ambition of the Women on Walls campaign is to make women leaders visible to inspire future generations.

“The contribution of women in society is too often invisible. Who we see on the walls tells us about what we as a society value, about who is welcome, about who fits in,” she said. “It is truly moving to see these magnificent eight portraits being unveiled by RCSI today, reminding us of the impact these women had in healthcare.”

Who are the chosen Women on Walls?

The historical leaders chosen are Irish women who forged careers in healthcare during a time in Ireland when women were expected to stay at home.

Dr Victoria Coffey

Dr Victoria Coffey was one of the first female paediatricians in Ireland. In 1979 she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and was also a founding member of its Faculty of Paediatrics.

She was the first female recipient of RCSI’s Distinguished Graduate Medal, first woman president of both the Irish Paediatric Association and the RCSI Postgraduates’ Association, and president and founding member of the Irish and American Paediatric Society.

Mary Frances Crowley

Mary Frances Crowley undertook her professional training in Britain, earning her registered nurse certificate in 1935. She returned to Ireland in 1941 to take up a senior position in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital. In 1944, she was appointed assistant matron of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital.

Crowley also founded the Nursing Training School at the Eye and Ear, and became director of nursing studies. In 1974, her ambition of many years was realised with the establishment of a Faculty of Nursing at RCSI, the first of its kind in Ireland or Britain.

Dr Emily Winifred Dickson

Dr Emily Winifred Dickson was the first female Fellow of RCSI. Dickson enjoyed a distinguished academic career, winning a number of student medals and receiving her licence in 1891.

She earned her MB (bachelor of medicine, first class honours, with an exhibition prize) from the Royal University of Ireland in 1893. In the same year she earned her fellowship of RCSI, a first for a woman in any college of surgeons in Ireland or Britain. In 1896 Dickson was appointed examiner at RCSI, another first for women in Ireland or Britain.

Dr Margaret (Pearl) Dunlevy

Dr Margaret Dunlevy was an epidemiologist whose championing of immunisation served to eradicate tuberculosis in Ireland. Dunlevy received her licence from RCSI in 1932, coming first in her class.

After several years training in Britain, including a period as a TB physician in Cardiff, Dunlevy earned a diploma in public health from University College Dublin (UCD), again coming first in her class. She was also president of the RCSI Biological Society, president of the Irish Society for Medical Officers of Health, and a member and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.

Dr Mary Josephine Hannan

Dr Mary Josephine Hannan was the first woman both to train and to qualify at RCSI. In 1896, she established herself as Cardiff’s first practising female doctor. Subsequently, Hannan relocated to South Africa where she became a member of the General Committee of the South African Medical Congress.

A champion of women’s rights, Hannan was a member of the Women’s Enfranchisement League; on occasion she refused to pay taxes that applied to unmarried women but not unmarried men.

Dr Maura Lynch

Dr Maura Lynch was a surgeon who revolutionised obstetric fistula care in Uganda. When she was 17, she joined the Medical Missionaries of Mary before studying medicine at UCD. She earned a diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, then studied tropical medicine and Portuguese in Lisbon so that her order could send her to Angola.

After nearly 20 years of clinical work in Angola, Lynch saw that the need for a specialist surgeon in the country was not being met. At the age of 47, Lynch undertook further study in Ireland and obtained the fellowship of RCSI in 1985.

Dr Barbara Maive Stokes

Dr Barbara Maive Stokes was a paediatrician and pioneering disability campaigner. Stokes studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, after which she trained as house physician at Meath Hospital. She earned a certificate in public health from UCD in 1947 and hoped to become an epidemiologist, but the marriage bar prevented this.

Turning to paediatrics, Stokes was appointed assistant physician at St Ultan’s Hospital. She also worked at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, and in the 1950s was senior demonstrator in pharmacy and physiology at RCSI. A tireless advocate, Stokes served on many boards, notably the National Rehabilitation Board and Inclusion Ireland.

Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman

Dr Mary Somerville Parker Strangman was a doctor, suffragist and elected councillor. After training and lecturing in Britain, Strangman became the second woman to earn the fellowship of RCSI in 1902. She served on the executive committee of the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation from 1911 to 1917.

As co-founder of the local branch of the Woman’s National Health Association, Strangman worked to combat tuberculosis, the country’s principal killer disease. Seeing the authorities’ poor investment in sanitation, Strangman stood for election on a public health platform and was elected Waterford’s first female councillor in 1912.

Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic