Hygieia’s Handmaids: women health and healing

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By | From the Collections

On International Women’s Day (8 March) we’re looking back to a Wellcome exhibition called Hygieia’s Handmaids: women health and healing. The catalogue for the exhibition, which has been digitised and is available online,  makes a useful resource for the history of women in medicine . Dr Lesley Hall who curated the original exhibition in 1988 still works at the Wellcome Library, so I asked her to to tell me more about it.

Where was the exibition held?

“In a  a small exhibition gallery on the 1st floor of the Wellcome Building – now Wellcome Collection – in 1988. The Wellcome Institute as it was then, ran a rotating series of exhibitions there, curated by members of the Library staff or the Academic Unit, drawing on materials from the collections.”


How long did it run? Who was it aimed at and who came to see it?

“It ran for around 3 months, and as far as we had a presumed audience, it would have been people coming into the building to use the Library or to attend seminars, lectures, and other events in the Academic Unit. There was a Visitors’ Book for the gallery but I’m not sure what happened to it.”

Was there something about that time – 1988 – in the United Kingdom that made this exhibition particularly timely?

“The date doesn’t have any particular resonance with women and medicine historically as far as I can work out. I think we’d just had one that was on 40 years of the NHS, and this one was just, well, what shall we do next?”

The exhibition covers a very wide range of themes, including mother and childcare, folk medicine, health campaigners and reformers, patients and the emergence of female professionals. Why such a wide scope?

“I suspect that that the original intention was probably that it would be about the entry of women into the medical profession, with perhaps a bit on heroic nurse figures like Nightingale and something on the early modern domestic receipt books. However, at that time we didn’t actually have a lot of archival and manuscript material on the pioneers – in fact we acquired the Medical Women’s Federation archive shortly afterwards as a direct result of my contacting them about historical material they might have had that we could borrow for this exhibition. Also I quite strongly wanted to get away from that simplistic heroic narrative, which I had first encountered in girls’ comics in the 1950s, of women entering a previously male profession. I felt that a more complex account was more appropriate for the date and the location.”

Was there any item that you  particularly wanted to include in the exhibition?

“Probably the Higginson’s syringe, which was employed by backstreet abortionists in the days before the 1967 Abortion Act.”


You suggest that women were represented in a very limited way in histories of medicine at that time: either as “victimised patients” or in the fight to enter the medical profession. Was this something you were trying to draw attention to?

“That was my sense of the historiography at the time – there was quite a lot on the medical oppression of women, which really didn’t get more nuanced with ideas of women’s agency vis a vis medical practitioners until a little bit later. Then there was the whole ‘women’s fight to become doctors’ which tended not to look at the ways in which the increasing regulation of the profession and the emphasis on formal qualifications from the later eighteenth century had actually had a significant effect on the way it was gendered. I was also interesting in thinking about ‘health professions’ as not just about doctors but as a range of specialists in different approaches to treating illness and preserving health.”

Did you succeed? What sort of responses did you get to the exhibition?

“I was fairly satisfied with the way it ended up, but unless somebody can find the Visitors’ Book, I’m not sure it’s possible to get much sense of the response. I did have some positive feedback, and there was also an approach about possibly recreating it in Geneva at WHO HQ, but I think the practical problems meant that wasn’t going to happen. Very flattering though.”

 An obese midwife on her way to a labour in the early hours Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A midwife on her way to a labour in the early hours of the morning. Coloured etching by: Thomas Rowlandson, 1811. Wellcome Images reference: L0037274.

I particularly liked what you said in the catalogue about the way women transitioned from patient to healer within their communities: experiencing pregnancy and childcare for themselves, then going on to become midwives or folk healers to others. This is still very much the case for many women around the world today. Do you think the exhibition still has something to say to a modern audience?

“A lot of the issues around women, health and healing that I addressed nearly 30 years ago in this exhibition are still relevant or at least of interest.”

Would you do anything differently if you were mounting the exhibition today?

“If an exhibition were being mounted now, we’d have a whole lot more material on the diversity of women’s involvement in medicine and health care that could be included. Since the late ’80s we’ve acquired the papers of a number of women health practitioners – not just distinguished women doctors like Alice Stewart and Margaret Ida Balfour, but records created by nurses or reflecting the careers of physiotherapists – as well as the records of British and international bodies of relevance, such as the Health Visitors’ Association and the International Confederation of Midwives. I think I’d also want to include audio-visual materials, which we didn’t have the facilities for at that time. I’d also hope we might have a somewhat larger budget!”

Authors: Library Web Editor Lalita Kaplish interviewed Dr Lesley Hall, Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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