Dr Joan Malleson (1899-1956) worked in sexual health and fertility at a time when even talking about such topics could be a source of acute embarrassment.
By all accounts Dr Malleson treated her patients with a great deal of understanding and compassion. She was among the first doctors to provide contraceptive advice to the general public and helped set up the Islington branch of the Family Planning Association in 1934. She also wrote about various aspects of sexual health, including infertility, sometimes under the name of “Medica”.
She played an important role in changing the law on abortion. In 1938 she spoke for the defence in the case of Dr Aleck Bourne, who was accused of illegally terminating a pregnancy resulting from the gang rape of a 14 year old girl. The case came before the Old Bailey in London and Dr Bourne was found not guilty.
In Britain there were very few legal ways to terminate an unwanted pregnancy before 1967. In an article published in the Lancet in February 1939, Dr Malleson argues for “mothers’ welfare centres” (clinics that could advise on contraception and, in some cases, termination), and warns of the dangers of illegal abortion:
“Many people believe that they must avoid asking for help in illness subsequent to abortion, lest the family doctor should disclose the case and bring disgrace or the law upon them. Hence a distraught mother seeks the local abortionist – often a kindly woman and often (so she feels) her only helpful friend. Experience shows that such actions are commonly undertaken from the highest motives – desire to maintain the standard of food and space for the already existing family, as well as to spare the suffering of the expected child for whom there is no adequate provision. Yet it happens that, with the invalidism or death of these mothers, the family disintegrates completely; around their health and capacity to tend the children the whole home revolves; and therefore, viewed socially, these mothers are the very last who should be permitted to jeopardise their well-being.”
The Wellcome Library holds four files of material associated with Dr Malleson’s involvement with the Family Planning Association (SA/FPA/A14/58:Box358). This small archive consists of letters, articles and newspaper clippings. A lot of the material relates to her early death at the age of 58, on her way back from working in New Zealand. She suffered a fatal coronary while swimming near Fiji. The most touching item is the script of a radio programme broadcast after her death in 1956. The testimonials from professional colleagues, former patients and her daughter-in-law describe a caring and courageous woman.
Author: Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library