Review of Beulah Bewley and Susan Bewley (Ed.), My life as a woman and doctor, by Laura Kelly, University of Strathclyde

Beulah Bewley and Susan Bewley (Ed.), My life as a woman and doctor

Bristol: Silverwood books, 2016.

Hardback: £18.71. ISBN 1781324190 51chymoctwl

Doctors’ memoirs are an extremely useful source for historians of medicine. Generally, they tend to follow a similar structure with an outline of the author’s childhood experiences, their medical student days, and a discussion of their career comprising the bulk of the memoirs. Although highly subjective sources, they nevertheless provide us with a first-hand account of the author’s life and experiences, and interestingly can tell us a lot about the importance of collective memory with regard to the medical profession, and which particular memories the author has decided are worthy of inclusion.  Beulah Bewley’s recently published memoirs are no exception and provide us with a rich and vivid account of Bewley’s life. More broadly, they are an extremely useful record of the experiences of an Irish-trained doctor, detailing not only her childhood and student days, but also providing an insight into her experiences of emigration and a career after marriage. Given that the majority of Irish doctors’ memoirs have been written by men, with a few exceptions, such as Joyce Delaney’s No starch in my coat: an Irish doctor’s progress (1971) and more recently, Clair M. Callan, Standing my ground: memoir of a woman physician, (Indiana: Archway Publishing, 2014), memoirs which detail the experiences of Irish women doctors are invaluable.

Beulah Bewley (neé Knox) was born in Derry in 1929 into an upper-middle class Protestant family. Following education at schools in Ballymena and Letterkenny, she enrolled in Alexandra School in Dublin where she studied from 1943-47. Bewley writes that even as a five-year old, she knew she wanted to become a doctor, and attempts by inquisitive adults, such as her uncle to dissuade her, had little impact. She began her medical studies at Trinity College Dublin in 1947, qualifying in 1953. Women had first been admitted to Trinity College in 1904, and by the 1940s, female medical students had become more well-established, although they were still in the minority, with Bewley noting that her medical class was comprised of sixty-four men and twenty-six women. Bewley discusses her educational and extra-curricular experiences while a student at Trinity College. Although it appears from this account that Bewley did not experience discrimination while a student, she does note one incident where a lecturer discussing female disorders mentioned that he “did not like the smell of menstruating women”, and all of the female students abruptly left the lecture in protest (p.55). As well as discussing what it was like to be a medical student in Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s, the book provides an insight into lots of interesting aspects of social life in Ireland in that period. For instance, I was really fascinated to read about dating culture in Dublin in the 1950s in Bewley’s chapter on her student days, while in her account of her childhood and experiences at Alexandra College, she discusses contemporary attitudes to women in education, and the fact that women were expected to follow traditional gender roles. The importance of female friendship and support networks really comes through in this account, particularly in Bewley’s discussion of her school and student days and the female friends that she had.

Following her graduation, Bewley held various appointments in England and in the United States, and she provides some memorable stories about her experiences in these posts. She married her husband Thomas in 1955 and had five children between 1958 and 1963, impressively working part-time in this period while raising her family. Between 1959 and 1969 she worked part-time for the Family Planning Association in London, and she discusses landmarks in the history of women’s reproductive health which she was witness to, such as the introduction of the contraceptive pill, and the reform of British abortion law in 1967.

She returned to her career full-time in 1969 when she undertook an MSc in epidemiology and social medicine at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and later an MD where her ground-breaking research project focused on smoking in children. In 1977 she joined the School of Hygiene as a senior lecturer and consultant, a role which was split between the School of Hygiene and King’s College Hospital and involved teaching and research. She also became a member of the Medical Women’s Federation and was later elected their President. Bewley’s discussion of her time as president is particularly interesting, and she writes about her work trying to get female doctors into positions of power in the 1980s, stating how ‘a lot of women are reluctant to put themselves forward [for posts or promotion] for one reason or another’ (p.165). Bewley’s career was illustrious and she was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 1985, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1992, Dame of the British Empire in 2000 for her services to women in medicine, and awarded an honorary LLB from Trinity College, her alma mater, in 2002.

What really stands out about this account is that although a great deal of it explores Bewley’s interesting career and experiences as a doctor, she is also not afraid to discuss the deeply personal aspects of her life, for example, the premature birth of her second child Sarah, who was diagnosed with congenital heart failure and Down’s syndrome, and she does not hold back in making her views clear about the climate and opportunities for women in medicine in the mid-twentieth century and beyond. The final chapter ‘Reflections’, is also an insightful read, with Bewley acknowledging the privileges she had in being supported in her pursuit of medical study, but also reflecting on her life, the position of women in contemporary Irish society and the experiences of old age.

This book will be of particular interest to historians of medicine, as well as to members of the medical profession who will be interested in the discussion of Bewley’s student days and career and to learn how things have changed for women doctors (or not?), while the fascinating and eminently readable life story of this remarkable woman means that the book will be an enjoyable and engaging read for the wider public.


Laura Kelly, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow