Paying attention to what women say

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By | From the Collections

International Women’s Day seems a good time to commemorate two amazing (and long-lived!) women doctors and researchers whose major breakthroughs were the result of listening to what women told them and paying attention to the implications.

Cicely Williams in later life

Cicely Williams in later life

Cicely Williams (1893-1992) was one of the first women appointed to the Colonial Medical Service, and posted to what was then the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in West Africa, 1928-1935. It was there, talking to mothers and grandmothers and hearing how they conceptualised the prevalent disease of early childhood, kwashiorkor, that she achieved the revelation that the reason that formerly healthy babies was succumbing to this disorder was because of the shift from being breast-fed to a nutritionally inadequate weaning diet. Her papers held in the Wellcome Library document this discovery, and her ongoing work on child and maternal health during her lengthy career.

Alice Stewart
Alice Stewart

Similarly,  the epidemiologist Alice Stewart (1906-2002) was attentive to the accounts given by the mothers of children with leukaemia of events that occurred during their pregnancy and the child’s infancy. This led her to notice the frequency with which the mothers had been x-rayed during pregnancy and to draw the conclusion, dismissed at the time but now accepted, that the low doses of radiation involved were more harmful to foetal health than supposed. Her papers are also held by the Wellcome Library and were described in an earlier blog post.

Their work reflects not only their own achievements as women scientists, but a willingness to pay attention to and to value what women were telling them about their own experiences.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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