How the Royal Free Hospital paved the way for women doctors

Royal Free Hospital. Picture: PA/Anthony Devlin

Royal Free Hospital. Picture: PA/Anthony Devlin - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

A book by Professor Neil McIntyre reveals the crucial role the Hampstead hosptial played in the history of healthcare, writes Anna Behrmann.

The Royal Free and its medical school was instrumental in allowing women to qualify as doctors in Britain, and if anyone is determined to preserve this history, it is Professor Neil McIntyre, who worked there as a doctor and senior academic for 36 years.

“The change is pretty staggering, from there once being no women doctors, to the situation we have now, where we have more women studying than men,” he says. “And in a year or two there’ll be more women doctors than men doctors.”

A group of young female students formed the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. They had been blocked from qualifying as doctors through any of the British universities, so took matters into their own hands.

However, they needed their qualifications to be recognised. An Irish examination board agreed to oversee their course, but the young students also needed to be trained at a recognised hospital. The Royal Free, then based at Gray’s Inn Road, stepped up to train what was then around 14 students; admitting the women for clinical studies.

This decision “laid the ‘foundation stone’ for the medical education of women in Britain and because of its mighty empire, in many other countries as well,” McIntyre writes in his book, How British Women Became Doctors: The Story of the Royal Free Hospital and its Medical School.

The Royal Free first opened its doors in 1828 as a hospital for the poor and sick. All other British hospitals either required patients to pay, or be backed by “subscribers” – the large annual donors of the hospitals.

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Legend has it that William Marsden stumbled upon a sick girl on the steps of St Andrew’s Church in Holborn. He was unable to get her admitted to hospital and had to pay a widow to take her in. Shocked by his experiences, he decided to found a free hospital.

It was crucial timing; the Royal Free became the first hospital to admit cholera victims in the 1832 epidemic. In 1837, Queen Victoria allowed what was then known as the Free Hospital to adopt the title, The Royal Free Hospital.

Professor McIntyre is now 81-years-old and active in his retirement. Serving in Aden as a doctor with the RAF as part of his National service in 1960, he returned to London to work at the Royal Free from 1963-1998, serving as the vice-dean of the medical school in the ‘90s.

McIntyre’s wife and daughter both studied at the Royal Free medical school, continuing its proud tradition of women students. The professor determined to write his book following the medical school’s merger with UCL in 1998.

“I was concerned that the school’s remarkable past might be airbrushed from history and that the hospital might also fail to get the attention it deserved,” he says.

How British Women Became Doctors: The Story of the Royal Free Hospital and its Medical School is available for £18 from All profits will go to Royal Free Library and the London Metropolitan Archives