Arabella Kenealy (1859-1938): Medical woman, author and eugenicist

NB: This article contains references to eugenicist ideas and descriptions of miscarriage that readers may find upsetting.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, which we typically mark by highlighting the achievements of pioneering women in history. Last year, I appeared in a video for ConSciCom discussing the Victorian medical-woman movement, talking about how early female practitioners paved the way for later generations of women in medicine. There is immense value in highlighting the inspirational activities of our female forerunners; it improves the visibility of women’s history and helps to redress traditionally male-dominated narratives. However, in doing so, we also risk sanitising or erasing more problematic aspects of women’s history. Not all ‘pioneering’ women can or should be treated as proto-feminist icons.

The subject of this profile – Arabella Kenealy, an early medical woman and author, who was also an outspoken eugenicist – deftly illustrates this. As Angelique Richardson has shown, there was considerable interaction between the New Woman and eugenicist movements at the fin de siècle,[1]  and Kenealy was a particularly prolific and extreme spokesperson on degeneration.

Arabella Kenealy

Born in Portslade, East Sussex in 1859, Kenealy was one of eleven children from the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth Kenealy. Her father was a barrister, who earned notoriety for his eccentric conduct when he acted as counsel during the Tichborne Case. The young Kenealy was educated at home, and she later studied at the London School of Medicine for Women. In 1883, she was licensed by the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland, the first licensing body in the UK to admit women. She went on to practise medicine in London and Watford between 1884 and ‘94.

In 1893, her novel Dr Janet of Harley Street appeared, amid a vogue for fiction about medical women.[2] The narrative tells the story of Phyllis Eve, a young woman who runs away from her dissipated husband on her wedding day. She finds refuge with Dr Janet Doyle, a successful physician who attempts to make Phyllis her protégé.

Dr Janet is a pragmatic, confident and capable medical woman, who has a large and prosperous practice. Yet the story largely perpetuates gender stereotypes. Women doctors were often seen as androgynous or unconventional figures, and Janet fits this archetype – she is masculine in appearance and describes herself as having a ‘neuter-nature’. [3] By contrast, Phyllis is almost hyper-feminine – sensitive, innocent, and highly-strung. Whereas Janet thrives in medicine, Phyllis wilts from the pressures of study. The narrative is interested in medical education and practice, but it is largely concerned with Phyllis’s attempts to escape her reprobate husband and find love with Janet’s cousin, Paul. The story unfolds as a battle between Janet and Paul for Phyllis’s future. He insists that ‘[a] woman like that is made for love and home and children’ rather than ‘skeletons and pharmacopeias’.[4] He is proven right, and the novel implies that only some (atypical) women are suited to medical work.

In an earlier blog post, I profiled one of Kenealy’s contemporaries, Margaret Todd, the author of Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892). This novel has aged relatively well, retaining much of its humour and charm, and its independent heroine remains sympathetic and engaging. By contrast, Dr Janet now seems distinctly unpalatable and even shocking in places, both in its more restrictive attitude towards gender roles and its scorn towards the working classes. The titular character vehemently warns of the dangers of degeneration, presenting working-class sexuality as a threat. In one scene, she attends poor patients at the hospital, asking the parents of ‘sickly or evilly-disposed children’ if they are ‘not ashamed to have brought such “human rubbish” into existence’.[5]

The novel was also considered rather outlandish at the time of publication, however. Whereas Mona Maclean is a romance in the realist mode, Dr Janet is a sensationalist and melodramatic novel, with a plotline that encompasses a faked death, bigamy, and adultery. In the closing chapters, the titular character even persuades Phyllis’s dissolute husband to commit suicide, to release his young wife from their doomed marriage. Reviewing the novel, journalist Hilda Gregg suggested that this method of dispatching the villain was ‘highly ingenious’, adding that ‘[i]n Miss Kenealy’s opinion, it is also highly moral in character, but this is a matter on which a very different view may be held’.[6]

Shortly after the novel’s publication, Kenealy contracted diphtheria and retired from active medical practice due to ill-health. She increasingly focused on writing both popular fiction and articles for magazines such as The Nineteenth Century and Eugenics Review. In Dr Janet, the eponymous character represents sexual difference as the ‘acme of development’, positing her own ‘neuter-nature’ as an aberration.[7] Kenealy’s later writing espoused similar views on evolution and sex. It implied that Nature was unconcerned with women’s physical or intellectual prowess, and more interested in procreation. Unlike many of her fellow medical women, Kenealy endorsed conventional femininity and gender roles, fearing that women’s work would detract from their most important vocation: motherhood. She presented women as passionless creatures, who needed to conserve their energies for reproduction.[8] Her book Feminism and Sex Extinction (1920), as its title suggests, concentrated on what she perceived as the harmful effects of the women’s rights movement. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) branded it ‘an interesting study in modern sociology’, and one that would confirm the views of those who saw ‘nought but harm in votes for women’.[9]

As with many eugenicists, Kenealy’s fixation with the decline of the national stock included a concern with congenital illnesses, including venereal disease. In 1895, she wrote a letter to the BMJ, which appeared under the title ‘A Question of Conscience’. This is the first known example of a woman doctor attending venereal disease in private practice.[11] The correspondence records a case where Kenealy withheld treatment from a pregnant women with syphilis, who appeared to be approaching a miscarriage. The patient had previously suffered several miscarriages and borne one child with congenital syphilis. Kenealy characterised her patient as ‘a wreck of a young woman’, dehumanising the existing child with reference to its ‘dull misshapen head’.[10] Kenealy asked the BMJ’s readers for their opinion on her handling of the case.

The letter raised questions about medical ethics and morality and Kenealy’s approach drew criticism from some of her contemporaries. The BMJ later printed a letter from A.G. Welsford, who argued that allowing or enabling miscarriages whenever there was chance of inherited disease amounted to ‘a radical method of eliminating unhealthy strains in the race’. He anticipated it would lead to ‘terrible abuses’, and contended that it was not for doctors to decide whether or not a particular life had ‘value’.[12] In a later letter, Kenealy said that she appreciated ‘the position of trust held by the physician’. She denied that she was advocating euthanasia but claimed that practitioners should ‘allow’ Nature to ‘cast off’ a foetus with congenital syphilis.[13]She continued to use graphic and dehumanising language while defending her position. The BMJ shut down further correspondence on the matter, as it often did with lengthy and inflammatory exchanges.

Across her career, Kenealy was recognised as both a woman doctor and an author. Like Todd, her literary and medical identities intersected, though sometimes in less affirmative ways. In 1896, the BMJ printed a critique of her short story, ‘A Human Vivisection’, in which a Professor vivisects a drunk man. An anonymous reviewer lambasted the plotline, suggesting that if a writer who appeared on the Medical Register believed a practitioner capable of such acts, she should ‘publicly […] disassociate’ herself from the profession. If not, she should do other than ‘slander’ her peers.[14] In a rejoinder, Kenealy emphasised her pride in the profession and pointed out that other authors (such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle) were not attacked for their dubious portraits of medical men. The BMJ inserted an editorial apology, saying it regretted any ‘misrepresentation’ as to Kenealy’s intentions.[15] Kenealy remained active in medical, cultural and public spheres. She campaigned against vivisection, giving evidence to the 1912 Royal Commission, and she also became interested in occultism. She died in Marylebone, London in November 1938.

Kenealy is not the type of woman to be reclaimed as a proto-feminist icon. Her views on eugenics and sexual politics make for distinctly troubling reading. While they partly reflect contemporary ideologies, they were also regarded as controversial and even abhorrent by her peers. Nevertheless, it is important to engage with problematic female ‘pioneers’ such as Kenealy. As identified at the outset, simply reifying individuals as inspirational heroines risks oversimplifying and sanitising women’s history. Recently, historian Fern Riddell has highlighted the role violence played in the suffragette movement, discussing how such militancy has been erased in the cultural imagination. Of course, Kenealy in many ways went against this grain, using her platform to decry women’s rights, but she is another figure who proves difficult to accommodate or integrate into our popular narratives of women’s history. To understand fully women’s varied contributions to history, however, we need to engage with a range of attitudes, opinions and behaviours that shaped public and private life.

[1] Angelique Richardson, Love and Eugenics in the Late Nineteenth-Century: Rational Reproduction and the New Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 9.

[2] Kristine Swenson, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005).

[3] Arabella Kenealy, Dr Janet of Harley Street (New York: Appleton, 1894), p. 124.

[4] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 143.

[5] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 195.

[6] Hilda Gregg, ‘The Medical Woman in Fiction’, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 164 (July 1898), 94-109 (p. 108).

[7] Kenealy, Dr Janet, p. 124.

[8] Patricia Fara, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 40.

[9] ‘Notes on Books’, BMJ, 15 May 1920, p. 676.

[10] Kenealy, ‘Correspondence: A Question of Conscience’, BMJ, 14 September 1895, p. 682.

[11] Anne Hanley, Medicine, Knowledge and Venereal Diseases in England, 1886-1916 (London: Palgrave, 2017), p. 154.

[12] A.G. Welsford, ‘Correspondence: “A Question of Conscience”’, BMJ, 28 September 1895, p. 807.

[13] Kenealy, ‘Correspondence: “A Question of Conscience”’, BMJ, 12 October 1895, p. 934.

[14] ‘Letters, Notes, and Answers to Correspondents: “A Human Vivisection”’, BMJ, 20 June 1896, p. 1544.

[15] ‘Letters, Notes, and Answers to Correspondents: “A Human Vivisection”’, BMJ, 27 June 1896, p. 1588.

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