Florence Dissent (1869-?)

When I talk about my research on Victorian medical women, I find that people are sometimes familiar with the names of the earliest pioneers, such as Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake. Yet many of their contemporaries, and female practitioners that followed closely in their stead, remain unknown. I’m interested in which historical figures are in the public consciousness or domain.

One medical woman who I unearthed during my research proved to be relatively invisible in scholarship and to have little digital presence. This was Florence Dissent (later Dissent-Barnes), an Anglo-Indian practitioner in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I first encountered Dissent in the pages of the Indian Medical Record, which devoted a full-page illustrated biography to her when she was just 26 years old. I was disappointed that Dissent has since faded into obscurity, so I featured her in my thesis, created a Wikipedia page for her, and wanted to share her story via this blog.

Florence Dissent

This image of Dissent appeared in the Indian Medical Record (1895).

Dissent was born on 9 July 1869 in Calcutta, the then-capital of British India. She was initially educated at home and between the ages of 8 and 14 was a pupil at Loreto Convent, an all-girls Roman Catholic school. Dissent qualified in medicine in Europe. She received her MD from Brussels and was licensed through the Scottish Triple Qualification from the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

Back in India, she was attached to the National Association for Supplying Medical Aid to the Women of India (commonly known as the Dufferin Fund, after the Viceroy’s wife), and later the state-funded Women’s Medical Service for India (established in 1913). At the outset of her career, Dissent worked at the Dufferin Hospital for women in Allahbad. In 1891, the Indian Medical Gazette featured her clinical observations from practice there, printing ‘Two Cases of Large Uterine Polypus’ in its ‘A Mirror of Hospital Practice’ column.[1] She published under the name ‘Miss’, indicating that she practised as a surgeon.

As mentioned, Dissent was the subject of a full-page biographical sketch in the Indian Medical Record (IMR) in 1895. The article charted her personal and professional achievements and also framed her as source of inspiration for the Anglo-Indian community and for aspiring medical women. It suggested she was a ‘striking illustration’ of ‘what can be accomplished by patient self-denial on the part of Anglo-Indian parents with only limited means at their command’.[2] The term Anglo-Indian typically referred to those of British descent who were born, raised or long-domiciled in India, or sometimes to those of mixed racial heritage. The Anglo-Indian community faced prejudice and struggled to secure appointments in the medical or civil services unless they could afford to travel to London to take the entrance exams.

Reflecting on the medical-woman movement, the article argued, ‘[m]any avenues of work are open for our girls, but none offers so splendid an opportunity for usefulness to women in any other part of the world, as medical practice by women among women of India’. Medical women were typically valued for their ability to attend female patients who observed purdah or zenana, practices of veiling and segregation. The article continued: ‘The zenanas will remain closed to men physicians for another century, and all this while women physicians have to themselves an unexplored field of service that is unsurpassed in its possibilities for doing good’.[3] Some commentators contested the idea that Indian women were reluctant or unwilling to be attended by medical men, but the idea of an appetite or need for female practitioners was successfully mobilised by the medical-woman movement and its supporters. The IMR article is especially enthusiastic in its advocacy here.

When I added my entry on Dissent to Wikipedia, I was surprised and overjoyed to find that another editor quickly waded in with more information on her. This unknown contributor pointed out that in 1912, social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited Dissent’s hospital for women and children in Bhopal. They noted that Dissent was involved in training dais (native midwives), at the orders of the Begum. While the Webbs were highly pejorative towards the dais, characterising them as ‘ignorant and superstitious’, they do not provide an insight into Dissent’s attitudes.[4]  I found it remarkable that someone in the Wiki-editing community knew about Dissent when she was generally so forgotten.

Resurrecting Dissent’s career trajectory relies on patchy information, but I also found that in 1922 she was attached to the Government of Bombay to inquire into the maternity conditions of industrial women workers.[5] A year later, her report on this subject was published in the Bombay Labour Gazette.[6]

At some point she seems to have married, for she published first under the name ‘Miss Dissent’ and later under ‘Mrs Dissent Barnes’. When so many historical (and modern-day) women are represented as adjuncts to better-known husbands, it is refreshing to find that the record of her medical work outstrips anything about her romantic life. I was pleased to be able to reflect this in her Wikipedia profile.

Inspired by my research on Dissent and my first foray into Wikipedia editing, I recently organised a Wikithon on Women in Medicine with the Wellcome Collection, under the auspices of the Constructing Scientific Communities project. Working with Alice White (the Wellcome’s former Wikimedian-in-Residence and current Web Editor), the event sought to improve the representation of women on Wikipedia and inspire more female editors. Hopefully events like this will ensure that women such as Dissent become better known, not only among scholarly communities but also among the wider public interested in women’s history and medical history.

[1] Florence Dissent, ‘Mirror of Medicine: Two Cases of Large Uterine Polypus’, Indian Medical Gazette, December 1891, p. 334.

[2] ‘Our Picture Gallery: Miss Florence Dissent’, Indian Medical Record, 1 May 1895, p. 334.

[3] ‘Our Picture Gallery’, p. 334.

[4] Sidney Webb, The Webbs in Asia: The 1911-12 Travel Diary (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1992), p. 249.

[5] ‘Maternity Conditions in India’, Lancet, 4 February 1922, p. 216.

[6] Margaret Ida Balfour and Ruth Young, The Work of Medical Women in India (London: Oxford University Press, 1929), p. 176.

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