Thursday, 13 April 2017

A Woman Surgeon – L Martindale (for the 1951 club).

I didn’t immediately warm to A Woman Surgeon, perhaps because (as Dr Martindale explains in her Apologia at the beginning of the book) she really isn’t a writer.

Her descriptions are separate sentences, series of facts and potted histories of someone or somewhere. You never forget they are just descriptions. Her writing is clear and concise, but there is no real ability to transport the reader to the places and times she describes. 

Within quite a short time though I started to see the advantages of this - there is nothing here to cloud our vision of what things were actually like in the early 1900s when she began working as a doctor (as I write this I’m thinking particularly of Laurie Lee, who faithfully describes hungry children, unfeeling authority, and successful murder, but writes them so beautifully and so strongly tinted with his own pleasure in his 1910s childhood that the preface to my edition of Cider with Rosie talks about ‘the world we have lost’.)

In contrast, by the second chapter of A Woman Surgeon we have a clear eyed recollection of the progress that has been made in medicine and women’s education in the 50 years Martindale has been working, of the good and bad in the missionaries who accommodated the family in India, and how variable or useful the education they provided to children was.

By the time she is on to writing about her work I was completely hooked.

Martindale wasn’t one of the very first women doctors, but she was early enough to be able to write about it; as well as about women’s suffrage, the early days of x-ray therapy, the hospital she helped out in at Royaumont Abbey in WW1, the book she published about venereal disease and how to prevent it (and the ridiculous, and she believed manufactured, outrage it caused).

Also really striking is how differently skilled a practice doctor had to be, with ‘minor’ operations, tooth extractions, x-ray work, home visits (riding around on a bicycle at night for these), always leaving the details of where you were in case of emergency. This is still very much the sort of doctor Conan Doyle was writing about when he invented Watson.

She visits the Mayo clinic, India, Australia, Germany where some interesting x-ray therapy work is being done. She is able to work in Hull for fairly low wages and gain the valuable experience that qualified her to practice. She encounters prejudice but also a lot of encouragement, particularly from other doctors (men as well as women). 

She was also fortunate in being well off and having a mother who encouraged her. In fact, there were moments I wondered whether her mother was being just a bit pushy and controlling, but given that this is the same period Vera Brittain was being chaperoned, I think she would probably be thought remarkably hands-off for the time! 

Martindale ends up specialising in gynaecology. It’s not clear if it’s a particular interest or if her patients are coming to her because they would prefer a woman doctor for this, but to be honest, and I think this is the key to her character throughout the book, it’s really not relevant. She just gets on with it. When they need hospital beds, she petitions, when no-one will sell her a practice she builds one up from scratch. She doesn’t dramatise or go on about it. She states the fact and moves on.

In fact, much of the book is not about her at all. It’s about her experiences, comparisons of different treatments and methods, her patients, her mentors, her family and friends, and the period she lived through.  Fascinating, and really worth a read.  

So thanks to Simon and Karen, who are hosting the 1951 club, without which I would probably never have discovered this book. 

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