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KeywordsMedicine Obstetrics India Education
Dame Mary Scharlieb was a woman doctor who began her medical education and career in Madras, India, where her husband worked as a barrister. She became interested in medical jurisprudence and the cases concerning Hindu and Muslim women who did not receive adequate medical care because of the local practice of female seclusion, which prevented male doctors from attending to women. She was one of the first of four women to attend Madras Medical College and earned her Licentiate in Medicine, Surgery, and Midwifery. Scharlieb returned to England in 1878 and attended courses through the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1882, she earned a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery with second-class honors in Surgery and in 1897 a Master of Surgery. After returning to Madras in 1883, she kept a busy medical practice and worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Caste and Gosha Women. She served as a lecturer at the Madras Medical College and an Examiner in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Madras. She also served as a lecturer at the London Medical School for Women, as Surgeon to the New Hospital for Women, and as Chief Gynecologist at the Royal Free Hospital, among other prestigious positions. Dr. Mary Scharlieb’s published works were intended for both specialists and lay audiences and include not only medical literature but also a novel and a memoir.
Dr. Mary Scharlieb, born Mary Ann Dacomb Bird in London on June 18, 1845, lost her mother to puerperal fever at 10 days old and was raised by her grandmother until age 2 when she rejoined her father and her stepmother, whom she attributes with having procured her an excellent education. As with other early women doctors, Mary Scharlieb enjoyed school, and, in her memoir, Reminiscences, she fondly recalls attending scientific lectures in London as a girl (Scharlieb 1924). She married in 1865 before age 20 and moved to India with her husband, William Scharlieb, who practiced as a barrister in Madras. Mary soon found herself assisting him with the editing of two law journals, occasionally contributing articles. Through this work, she became interested in medical jurisprudence and the cases concerning Hindu and Muslim women who did not receive adequate medical care, particularly during childbirth, often because of the local practice of purdah, or female seclusion, which prevented male doctors from attending to them. The legal and medical cases she read were supported by additional stories of “unnecessary suffering” of women as told to her by her husband’s clients, his clerks, and their servants (Scharlieb 1924).
Feeling compelled to help Hindu and Muslim women, in 1871, Scharlieb decided to study midwifery and was introduced by her friend, the Surgeon General, to the Surgeon-Major of the Lying-in Hospital in Madras whom she soon convinced to let her undergo proper midwifery training at the hospital. After a year, Scharlieb realized that to be of the most benefit to women in India, she would have to receive proper training in general medicine and surgery. Unwilling to leave her husband and young sons to return to England to pursue a medical education, she convinced the Governor of Madras and the Surgeon-General to allow for the admission of women students into the Madras Medical College, which they did. She was one of the first of four women to attend the college, and within 3 years, she earned her Licentiate in Medicine, Surgery, and Midwifery. The support for medical women in India was greater than in England since it was perceived there was a unique need for women doctors in India. Believing she could be of great service in India with the proper skills, and now wanting to earn her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from a London university, Scharlieb returned to England in 1878 and attended courses through the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1882, she earned the Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery with second-class honors in Surgery. She later studied operative midwifery in Vienna for 6 weeks.
Mary Scharlieb had a prestigious career as a doctor. After returning to Madras in 1883, she kept a busy medical practice, treating patients in their homes and at the Royal Victoria Hospital for Caste and Gosha Women. Additionally, she served as a lecturer at the Madras Medical College and an Examiner in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Madras. Altogether, the work was exhausting and Scharlieb had long suffered from poor health; therefore, because she felt the climate in Madras exacerbated her ailments, she decided to return to England permanently in 1887. In London, Scharlieb earned a Master of Surgery in 1897 and held various positions throughout the remainder of her career. She opened a private practice at her home on Harley Street and also served as a lecturer at the London Medical School for Women, as Surgeon to the New Hospital for Women, and as Chief Gynecologist at the Royal Free Hospital, among other prestigious positions. Despite having conducted her first operation at the age of 40, she became one of the most prominent surgeons of her time (Obituary 1930). In her memoir, she describes having delivered 109 lectureships at both the Madras Medical College and the London School of Medicine for Women over a 25-year period (Scharlieb 1924).
Scharlieb advocated for medical resources for Indian women throughout her life and discussed the issue in person with Florence Nightingale, who was disappointed with Scharlieb for returning to England, and Queen Victoria, who sought Scharlieb’s perspective on the health conditions of her Indian subjects. Scharlieb felt a calling to practice medicine, yet, despite her strong religious convictions, her goal was to care for Indian women and treat their diseases, not convert them. “I did not think that it would be right for me to take advantage of the doctor’s position of confidential adviser and friend to do any definite missionary work,” she writes in her memoir (Scharlieb 1924).
Mary Scharlieb’s published works were intended for both specialists and lay audiences. In 1902 she reported on 100 consecutive operations for uterine fibromyomata, and in 1908 she reported on an additional 100 cases. The second paper was well-received by the Royal Society, and she was lauded for her high operative success rates. Scharlieb also published case reports on gynecological masses and correspondences in medical journals. Her greatest contribution to health literature at the turn of the century, however, was in producing health guides for women and nurses. Her self-help articles, books, and booklets described and discussed puberty, sexual and reproductive health, and aging. These texts were intended to provide women with basic medical knowledge for preventing serious illness and, thereby, filled a wide gap in the literature.
The title of Scharlieb’s 1895 book, A Woman’s Words to Women, reified a popular notion among supporters of women doctors that women had an innate knowledge of women’s health and women’s bodies over men. She once wrote, “if the proper study of mankind is man, undoubtedly the proper study of women doctors is woman. Our real raison d’etre lies in our ability to recognise women’s special troubles and in our aptitude and sympathy in dealing with them” (Scharlieb 1924). The text meant to empower women to properly care for themselves and their children by offering basic health and dietary advice, including advice regarding education and morality for girls and women of all ages, specifically those living in England and India. Throughout the nineteenth century, geography was thought to be of great influence over people’s health, and it was believed that illness could be caused or cured by the weather of a particular geographic region; specific environments called for specific hygienic practices and remedies. Scharlieb suggested that improper adjustment to a new climate or environment could even cause sterility within a marriage. This discussion was part of a larger one in the book concerning female reproduction, which included discussions of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. Similarly, in the 1905 book, The Mother’s Guide to the Health and Care of her Children, Scharlieb reviewed hygiene, nursing, digestive diseases, contagious diseases, skin diseases, and other common childhood ailments (Scharlieb 1905).
The Seven Ages of Women (1915) was a guide for every stage of a woman’s life, from girlhood to advanced age, with advice on how to grow old gracefully and assurances of the older woman’s value to society through her administrative skills. The Hope of the Future (1916) was another guide for the care of infants and children. Like many women doctors, Scharlieb was concerned with the high infant mortality rate and hoped it might decrease through education of mothers and nurses. The Welfare of the Expectant Mother from 1919 makes the hygiene and pathology of pregnancy a “national necessity” to safeguard the expectant mother’s health. Scharlieb published many other similar books throughout her career, serving as a prominent voice in the specialties of women’s health and children’s health; some of these books were extremely popular and reprinted over ten or more editions and some into the current century. There is a common thread throughout Scharlieb’s works uniting the family and the future of the nation with health and morality. For Scharlieb, the health of the nation began with prenatal care. Scharlieb was also a vocal supporter of the temperance movement and became the first woman to serve as president of the Society for the Study of Inebriety.
Like other women doctors of her time, Scharlieb ascribed to philosophies of eugenics during the early twentieth century. In her memoir, she describes studying “migration within the Empire and urged greater care and wisdom in the selection of individuals and families for migration to the Britons overseas” (Scharlieb 1924). Her 1912 long essay, “Womanhood and Race-regeneration” promotes “surer methods of advance” to “reveal the foundations of a richer civilisation” and places the burden of responsibility for the future of the English race in women’s hands: “all women may be the spiritual mothers of the children of the nation.” Women could benefit the English race as wives, mothers, and teachers. The teaching of faith was especially important: “The regeneration of the race will never be accomplished until the women of the country, themselves deeply convinced of the importance of right belief and right practice, devote themselves to teaching their faith to their children, and to requiring it in a practical form from the members of their household” (Scharlieb 1912).
In 1917, Scharlieb was decorated with a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and in 1926 made a Dame of the British Empire. Scharlieb wrote that she compiled her memoir, Reminiscences, “to supply an answer to those who ask whether professional life is compatible with wifely and motherly duties. I know that it is” (Scharlieb 1924). At the age of 85, shortly before her death, Scharlieb published a novel called Yet a More Excellent Way about a boy who becomes a missionary in India. She died in November 1930. In an obituary in the British Medical Journal comprised by several friends and colleagues, Dr. Jane Walker says of Scharlieb, “Several obituary notices have called her a pioneer. In my opinion this is an incorrect description of her. Rather did she become a woman doctor to enable her to help the suffering of her fellow women. In no sense did she attempt to blaze the trail for medical women coming after…Indeed, I should not call her a feminist, at any rate not in the really modern sense of the term. She helped the women’s movement in what is perhaps the really best way, by the excellence of her work” (Obituary 1930).
- Scharlieb, Mary. 1895. A woman’s words to women: On the care of their health in England and in India. London: Swan Sonnenschein.Google Scholar
- ———. 1912. Womanhood and race-regeneration. New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company.Google Scholar
- ———. 1915. The seven ages of woman: A consideration of the successive phases of woman’s life. London: Cassell and Company, LTD.Google Scholar
- ———. 1916. The Hope of the future: The management of children in health and disease. London: Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
- ———. 1924. Reminiscences. London: Williams and Norgate.Google Scholar
- Scharlieb, Mary, and Barbara Butts. 1917. England’s girls and England’s future. London: The National Council for Combatting Venereal Diseases.Google Scholar