Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Coláiste Ríoga na Máinleá in Éirinn

Papers belonging to first female Fellow of RCSI donated to the College

27 March 2012
Papers belonging to Dr. Emily Winifred Dickson, the first female Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) have been donated to the College by her family. The papers which include certificates, medals, testimonials, correspondence and photographs dating from the 1880s-1920s were donated by Dr EW Dickson's grandson Dr. Niall Martin to Prof. Eilis McGovern, RCSI President.

First Female Fellow

(L-R), Prof. Eilis McGovern, RCSI President, Prof. Hannah McGee, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, RCSI and Dr. Duncan Martin, Grandson of Dr. Emily Winifred Dickson examining memorabilia donated to RCSI by family members of Dr. Emily Winifred Dickson.

Emily Winifred Dickson was born in Tyrone in 1866 to the Ulster Liberal MP Thomas A. Dickson and his wife Elizabeth. She was the second youngest of seven children and was educated at the Ladies Collegiate School in Belfast and Harold House School in London. In 1887 she enrolled in RCSI, where she was the only female medical student.

Emily Winifred Dickson obtained the Licence of the RCSI & RCPI in 1891 and graduated from the Royal University of Ireland in 1893 with the degrees of MB, BCh, BAO. She was elected the first female Fellow of RCSI in 1893. After her graduation, she won an RUI travelling scholarship to Vienna and Berlin for six months. In Berlin she encountered a lot of resistance and was unable to gain a place on courses at many clinics. Upon her return to Dublin in 1894, she set up practice in 18 Upper Merrion Street and was appointed Gynaecologist to the Richmond, Whitworth and Hardwick Hospital where she worked for four years until her marriage to Robert Martin in 1899.

first female fellow

Declan Magee, RCSI Council Member and Consultant Surgeon, examines memorabilia donated to RCSI by family members of Dr. Emily Winifred Dickson.

In 1896 Dr Dickson took the degrees of Doctor of Medicine and Master of Obstetrics at the Royal University of Ireland. Following this she was appointed an Examiner in Midwifery at RCSI. Upon her appointment, the students objected to a female examiner and 14 pages of signatures petitioning against her appointment were presented to the Council of RCSI.

On marriage she gave up her career in medicine and went on to have five children. In 1915 when her husband joined the British Army she returned to work as a doctor. She became the sole breadwinner for the family after she and her husband separated. The family moved to England in 1915. For much of the rest of her life she suffered illness but continued to work up until two months before her death in 1944 at the age of 77.

Up until the mid 1980s the annual Charter Day Dinner was principally an event for male surgeons. Women attending the dinner were required to be seated separately in the Minstrel Gallery. It is fitting therefore to commemorate the first woman Fellow of RCSI by dedicating the Minstrel Gallery in Dr Emily Winifred Dickson's name. On the occasion of the presentation of the Dickson papers to RCSI, Professor Eilis McGovern unveiled a plaque at the Minstrel Gallery commemorating Dr Emily Winifred Dickson FRCSI.

Prof. Eilis McGovern, RCSI President said "RCSI was the first college in Great Britain and Ireland that allowed women to take its exam. At a time when most women were illiterate, health was poor and unemployment was high, Winifred Dickson was one of a few pioneering women doctors working in Ireland who greatly helped to remove the prejudice against women working in medicine and made it easier for women who have since followed her in her footsteps. It is a great honour to be presented with these papers by Winifred's family which form a unique part of RCSI's history."

The papers will be catalogued in the RCSI Library and will be made available to researchers and for display in due course.

First Female Fellow

(L-R) Duncan Martin, Grandson of Dr. Dickson, Prof. Eilis McGovern, RCSI President, Prof. Hannah McGee, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, RCSI and Dr. Niall Martin, Grandson of Dr. Dickson.