The name Louisa Aldrich-Blake might not resonate with many, but her groundbreaking contributions to medicine should not be underestimated. This esteemed individual was the first woman to achieve a Master of Surgery degree, a monumental feat given the restrictive gender roles of her time. Not content with this, she also became the first surgeon, irrespective of gender, to perform pioneering operations for cervical and rectal cancer.
A Collaborative Movement: London Medical School for Women
Louisa Aldrich-Blake didn’t rise to prominence in isolation. Victorian London had a coterie of tenacious women like Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake, who obtained their qualifications abroad. These brilliant minds came together to establish the London Medical School for Women, an institution where future female doctors could earn their medical degrees without having to leave the country. Louisa Aldrich-Blake acquired her MD and later her Master of Surgery from this progressive school.
Institutional Success: Career Milestones
By 1910, she had climbed the ranks to become the senior surgeon at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s Hospital on Euston Road, where she had trained and practiced. Her talent was quickly acknowledged, and she was appointed Vice Dean of the London Medical School for Women in 1906 and Dean in 1914, coinciding with the outbreak of World War I.
A Scholar and an Innovator: Research Contributions
Beyond her surgical firsts, Aldrich-Blake was an academic. She made substantial advancements in the treatment of cervical and rectal cancers, with her research findings gaining a prestigious place in the British Medical Journal.
The War Effort: Mobilising Women Doctors
Despite the initial reluctance from the army to accept female doctors, Aldrich-Blake was not to be deterred. During her holiday periods, she travelled to treat wounded soldiers. Eventually, her persistence paid off, and her expertise was formally sought. She coordinated a rota of 125 female doctors, 80 of whom volunteered across Egypt, Malta, and Salonika.
Equality and Recognition: Strides for Women in Medicine
Although these dedicated female doctors were not afforded the same rank or benefits as their male counterparts, their contributions made it increasingly difficult to overlook the talents of female medical professionals. Their collective endeavours invigorated the next generation of women to enter the medical field, thus doubling enrolments in medical schools.
Life Beyond Medicine: Post-war Achievements and Personality Traits
Louisa Aldrich-Blake wasn’t just limited to her professional role; she was, by all accounts, a whirlwind of activity. As a lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital after the war, she continued to break barriers by becoming the institution’s first female surgical registrar, anaesthetist, and lecturer on anaesthetics.
An embodiment of resilience and dedication, Aldrich-Blake’s motto was: “If you start a thing, then you must finish it.” Whether it was representing her school in cricket and boxing during her days at Cheltenham Ladies College or voluntarily serving at Canning Town Women’s Settlements Hospital after exhaustive surgical duties, her passion was boundless.
A Lasting Legacy: Honours and Memorials
Her tireless efforts didn’t go unnoticed. She became a revered member of the British Medical Association, and her contributions to medicine are immortalised in a statue in Tavistock Square.
Louisa Aldrich-Blake’s story isn’t merely that of a talented surgeon or a diligent academic; it is a narrative of resilience, of breaking barriers, and of setting an example for those who dare to challenge societal norms.