First women students at the University of Melbourne Medical School
L S Blair & Co (estab. Circa 1885, closed Circa 1889)
Sepia photograph of 1887 Women Medical students, commemorating the first year of women's admission to Melbourne Medical School.
Left to right with year of graduation: Helen Sexton (1892-3), Lilian Alexander (1893-4), Annie O'Hara (1894-5), Clara Stone (1891-2), Margaret Whyte (1891-2), Grace Vale (1894-5), Elizabeth O'Hara (1892-3).
It is difficult for us today to imagine the challenges faced by women in becoming doctors in the nineteenth century. These first female medical students were admitted to the Melbourne Medical School in 1887, six years after women first attended the University of Melbourne and before women had the right to vote. They went on to change the course of history by setting up a hospital run by women for women (the Queen Victoria Hospital for Women) and set a benchmark for women’s healthcare in Victoria and indeed the world. They also founded the Victorian Medical Women’s Society, an organisation that continues to this day to facilitate the professional development of medical women and to advocate for the health of women and children. These were remarkable, tenacious and visionary women.
In the photograph are (seated from left to right): Clara Stone, Margaret Whyte, Grace Vale and Elizabeth O’Hara. Standing from left to right are Helen Sexton, Lilian Alexander and Annie O’Hara. Clara Stone went into private practice with her sister Constance and joined her at the free dispensary, which saw over 2000 women in the
first three months. (Constance Stone was perhaps the last woman to be refused entry to medicine at the University of Melbourne, studying instead in Toronto, Philadelphia and London before returning to become our first registered female medical doctor.) Margaret Whyte was the first woman doctor to hold a post on the Royal Women’s Hospital staff, where she was appointed assistant resident officer in the midwifery department, after having been refused a position as resident medical officer at the Melbourne Hospital because she was female. Grace Vale became a general practitioner in Ballarat and witnessed the taking of the first X-ray there. It is thought that Elizabeth and Annie O’Hara went into private practice.
Helen Sexton was the first woman to be elected a member of the honorary staff as a surgeon at the Royal Women’s Hospital. Soon after the outbreak of World War I, Sexton, aged over fifty, took a small field hospital to France. This was a gift from Sexton and other women doctors, whose offers to serve had been refused by Australia’s military authorities. Lilian Alexander, the first female student at Trinity College and a leading surgeon, also served overseas in World War I.
Dr Desiree Yap
Reference: The Melbourne Medical School 1862-1962 by K.F. Russell.
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inscriptions ▫ verso of mount in pencil, 'The ladies enter Medicine in 1887/Seated (l to r) Clara Stone/Margaret/Whyte, Grace Vale, Elizabeth (or Annie)/O'Hara. Standing (l to r). /Helen Sexton, Lilian Alexander,/Annie (or Elizabeth) O'Hara'