On Ada Lovelace Day, medical student Emily Garrett explains why her research into the archival papers of Letitia Fairfield left her so inspired by this pioneering 20th century doctor.
I first entered the Wellcome Library just over two years ago, after commencing an intercalated BSc in the History of Medicine as part of my medical degree at University College London. A few of my friends and family thought it an odd choice of subject on my part, given my total lack of experience in anything historical. However, I went on to spend many months perusing the shelves of the Library and delving into its archives, and came away with not only a wealth of new knowledge, but a new love for the history of medicine and the process of medical research itself.
My work focussed on the archive papers relating to the life and career of Dr Josephine Letitia Denny Fairfield; the sister of famous novelist Rebecca West, and the daughter of gambling addict and lothario Charles Fairfield and his tormented wife Isabella. Despite being the first ever female Chief Medical Officer of London and a twentieth century pioneer in women’s and children’s medicine and social policy, when I began my research I discovered that little had been formally published about Lettie, as she was known by close friends and family.
I quickly came to realise that her life story was compelling at both a personal, and a professional level, and I became completely engrossed in the personal letters, manuscripts and publications she had written. Having lived through and been very active during both World Wars, Lettie’s life-story provided me with a unique insight into life as a woman and a doctor at a time of immense social upheaval.
And so I became quite compelled to making my daily visits to the archives, making myself comfortable with the next set of letters Lettie had written to friends and family, detailing her new Front Line promotions, enviously describing the long eyelashes of her colleagues, seething at the injustice of the system in which she worked, or excitedly recounting tales of trips in aeroplanes with male commanders and her shiny new badges. I became totally enthralled by her story.
Lettie came from a somewhat notorious family background thanks to her sister and father: Rebecca having given birth to a child out of wedlock following an affair with novelist H. G. Wells, and her father having had numerous open affairs, indulging in all that he could, and diminishing the family’s wealth and genteel reputation.
Rebecca’s high profile affair has resulted in the family’s story being well scrutinised, but Lettie’s career being overcast by the more glamorous tales of her sister. It is argued that her sister’s ‘improper’ behaviour may have contributed to Letitia’s failure to marry, though in none of her archived personal letters did she mention any desire to settle down.
When the girls were young, their parents separated and her mother Isabella moved to Edinburgh to live with relatives. With no secure financial backing, Lettie was permitted to enter medical school only through a family donation from her aunt Sophie, and the receipt of a Carnegie scholarship.
Letitia wrote with brutal honesty about life as a woman medical student, and later doctor, and the often sexist treatment she received from male peers. During medical school, Lettie recounted in newspaper articles that she and her female colleagues were not allowed to partake in several anatomy classes for fear of embarrassing the higher-calibre male students. Despite receiving the highest marks of her year and being granted several awards, at the end of her medical education, several of Lettie’s male teachers recommended her only for positions in asylums – the least respected of all medical posts. Notwithstanding her prize in Surgical Excellence, not even the most liberal of tutors suggested that she should look into a career in surgery, though she made no indication that this would have been her preference. Through access to personal records, original references in her curriculum vitae, and newspaper articles published by Lettie many years later, I tried to decipher the extent to which this discriminatory treatment actually affected her career.
In fact, so great was her love for medicine that Lettie often noted that she felt no real anger towards any of the men or women who disapproved of her career-choice, since despite their intentions she was still able to devote her life to what she viewed as the most privileged occupation in existence. In addition to her medical qualifications, she obtained a law degree and proceeded to argue on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society, defending single mothers, prostitutes and homosexuals, much of which brought her to loggerheads with the Catholic Church, to whom she was as devoted as Medicine. She discusses her position on Catholicism in a letter to Carlos Blacker in the digitised Blacker archive.
Despite a difficult journey, Letitia managed to climb the career ladder and pull other women up with her. Through access to such a diversity of materials, the archives provided me with a unique insight into the extraordinary life of a truly unique and remarkable woman, and helped me to tell the story of someone who spent their life fighting for change and making a difference. I was also lucky enough to get the opportunity to interview her relatives, and heard first-hand from her great nieces and nephews what ‘Dear Aunt Lettie’ was like. Letitia will forever inspire me in life, and, to me, it seems a travesty that she could remain relatively unknown for much of her incredible work.
Author: Emily Garrett is a fifth year medical student at University College London. Her paper about Dr Fairfield will be published in the Journal of Medical Biography, and has won a prize for the student article of the year.