Guest-blogger Professor Katharine Cockin shares the history of Dr Mary Murdoch, the first woman ever to practise medicine in Hull.
The First World War centenary has exposed some hidden stories about wartime Hull. As a port city located along a very distinctive estuary, Hull has been vulnerable to aerial bombardment. From 1915 onwards the monstrous zeppelins made their mark. In those difficult years during the First World War, the people of Hull could rely on the medical services of Mary Murdoch. She would attend emergencies at top speed in her trusty motor car. As a doctor, she was put in charge of a raid station and she recalled a night when a hundred bombs fell on Hull:
‘The poor have suffered the most, in their crowded tenements, and one big drapery establishment was entirely gutted. We had no casualties at our station, so I got out my car and drove about the town for some hours, without lights, to try and pick up the injured. Our School for Mothers had every window blown out, and several ceilings fell; but we got out the Sister-in-Charge and the cook uninjured. I was in no danger myself, though I saw the bombs thrown out, and feared one had struck the Children’s Hospital. However, they were all safe when I went to them’ (Malleson 1919: 144).
This fearless, rapid response was characteristic of Dr Mary Murdoch. She always put her patients first and made it her business to understand the difficulties of those living in poverty. It was from her experiences of visiting and listening to her female patients that she came to appreciate the complexity of their interconnected and often misunderstood problems. Poor housing conditions, food and hygiene, in addition to often precarious employment and the continuous responsibility of childcare, all contributed to these extremely difficult circumstances.
It was the Children’s Hospital in Park Street, Hull, which became synonymous with Dr Mary Murdoch. In 1893-95 she was House Surgeon there. After a year in London, she returned to Hull where she became a specialist in children’s medicine. She supported social reform and public education in ways which brought about significant practical improvements in the facilities available in Hull for women and children. Murdoch’s achievements were acknowledged by another distinguished female pioneer in the medical field, Louisa Aldrich-Blake (1865-1925), who was the first British woman to qualify as a surgeon:
In Hull, housing reform, crèches, schools for mothers, women patrols, girls’ clubs, all had her active help, and both there and in wider circles outside she was an ardent support of the suffrage movement, and a leader in the ‘National Union of Women Workers’ (Malleson 1919: vii-viii).
Murdoch had begun her training at the London School of Medicine for Women where Aldrich-Blake taught. It was an inspiring place to study. Murdoch’s cohort became part of an influential generation of women who achieved great things in their own right and were catalysts for change in unexpected ways.
Murdoch became the first woman to practise medicine in Hull. Her biographer, Hope Malleson, highlighted this distinction in the subtitle of her book, designating Murdoch ‘A Woman Doctor of Hull’. She ran her practice from her home at 102 Beverley Road and in partnership with Louisa Martindale (1872-1966) for five years until 1906.
Mary Murdoch understood her role as a doctor in the widest social context. Her approach to medicine was strikingly modern. This breadth of interest led to her reputation for tackling stubborn resistance to change. She committed her life to the city that employed her. Her attempts to improve the lives of the people of Hull won many loyal supporters as well as hostility from those who opposed her.
In the pursuit of social justice, Mary Murdoch had a determination and sense of humility. She warned the next generation of female medical students against favouritism or self-aggrandisement. In referring to medicine, she emphasised: ‘This is a republic where all are equal’ (Malleson 1919: 179). This egalitarian ethos was not welcomed by the more conservative patriarchs of Hull who mobilised against her when she spoke out about the consequences of poor housing in Hull. In spite of a spectacular scandal and extreme pressure from wealthy landlords to silence her, she refused to give up. This fearless support of the working people of Hull was quietly appreciated and on her death, large crowds came out to pay their respects.
Professor Katharine Cockin, University of Hull, 2017
Professor Katharine Cockin is Professor of English at the University of Hull. Her research is interdisciplinary, engaged with theatre history, literature and the study of the British women’s suffrage movement.
- Banks, Olive (ed.) 1985-90. Biographical Dictionary of British Feminists Vol. 2, Harvester Wheatsheaf.
- Cockin, Katharine, 2004. ‘Dr Mary Murdoch’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Cockin, Katharine, 2016. ‘Dr Mary Murdoch (1864-1916) and the ‘Heart of Hull’: Campaigning for women’s suffrage, education and health care’; audio recording of a lecture delivered by Professor Katharine Cockin of the University of Hull to the Hull Amnesty Group on 15th November 2016, 11am-12noon at Hull History Centre. https://hydra.hull.ac.uk/resources/hull:14055
- Holmes, Marie, 2014. ‘Dr Mary Murdoch’ in Not Just Wilberforce, Hull Amnesty International.
- Malleson, Hope, 1919. A Woman Doctor: Mary Murdoch of Hull, London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
- Martindale, Louisa, 1951. A Woman Surgeon, London: Gollancz.