International Women’s Day: Celebrating inspirational women who have made a huge impact on healthcare

International Women’s Day: Celebrating inspirational women who have made a huge impact on healthcare

This International Women’s Day, Professor Janet Wilson, Emerita Professor of Otolaryngology at Newcastle University and Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Council member, has spoken about the importance of celebrating inspirational women who have made an important impact on healthcare.


Professor Wilson said:

At the weekend, I had the privilege of speaking at the RCSEd International Jewish Woman of the Year Gertrude Herzfeld Prize for Health Prize award ceremony. This year’s recipient was the outstanding US molecular scientist Dr. Hynda K. Kleinman.


The Edinburgh Jewish Cultural Centre @Edinburgh_JCC established the award, in partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh @RCSEd. Gertrude Herzfeld who was the first woman surgeon to proactice in Scotland. The prize and recognises outstanding Jewish women in the field of health.


This International Women’s Day, I want to share some insights from the inspirational career journey of Dr Herzfeld.


Dr. Gertrude Herzfeld’s parents were married in Vienna. Before the birth of Gertrude and her younger brother, her parents and firstborn child Walther moved to London, and her father started work in the City. 


By 1903, her father - Michael Clemens von Herzfeld - decided to change his sons’ surname by deed poll to Clement, as he rightly foresaw the Germanic tone of Herzfeld might become problematic in years to come.  Gertrude retained Herzfeld – it has been suggested because she was expected to change her name on marriage. Of course, this was not to be, as by the age of 13 Gertrude was already determined to become a doctor.


In 1911, Gertrude’s mother died aged 53 after an operation. We can only assume it was no coincidence that about this time, Gertrude became determined to follow a surgical career.


When she graduated in 1914, she was a prize-winner and was appointed by the great Harold Stiles as his first female House Officer.  For women, the First World War offered unprecedented surgical experience. Gertrude moved for a spell to the RAMC in Aldershot, then on to act as senior House Surgeon in Bolton Infirmary, before returning to Edinburgh in 1919.


Thirty years before the NHS simplified the process of applying for a career in medicine, the only option was to develop what we would now call a portfolio career. Her course of gynae lectures was approved by the University of Edinburgh. She also taught in the Chiropody School, and in 1920 took her seat here in the RCSEd.


In 1925, Gertrude published on the technique she learnt from Stiles, of operating on inguinal hernia – over 2000 cases, many outpatients, an entirely innovative method at the time. In her day, despite the intricacy of the operation, and the tiny patients she was operating on – sometimes only one month old - Gertrude Herzfeld could complete a hernia repair in between three to five minutes.


In those days paediatric surgery embraced the whole range - plastic, orthopaedic, abdominal, and neonatal work, including the treatment of burns and trauma.


At the same time Gertrude undertook a wide range of general and gynaecological surgery at Bruntsfield Hospital. She helped found the Edinburgh School of Chiropody and the Edinburgh Orthopaedic clinic, and gained a wonderful reputation as an encouraging teacher. She used the same skills to educate parents on their children’s footwear!


She was also by instinct a scientist, and published a considerable volume of work for that time. Her 1939 Honyman Gillespie lecture on the 700 children with acute abdominal conditions admitted to her ward in the prior decade makes interesting reading. In 2022, it is humbling to read Gertrude’s description of the successful treatment of streptococcal peritonitis using one of the first antibiotics – drugs which we now use so profligately and with such a cost in terms of antimicrobial resistance.


In the interwar years, Gertrude matured into a professional and local leader, a champion of women surgeons for women’s conditions and a prominent figure in a range of provisions for women and children. Contemporary reports repeatedly indicate a woman fully engaged with the community - from the very poorest of her patients to the affluent echelons of Edinburgh’s social circle.


Gertrude was, however, not only a leader of women doctors and surgeons. She was well travelled, with a world view and lifelong support for the Soroptimist movement.


During the Second World War, Gertude took on added duties and had responsibility for emergency hospital provision in the city. In the post war years she continued her notable career, until her retirement in 1955. She consistently and with a light touch continued to promote the cause of women in medicine culminating in her presidency of the Medical Women’s Federation.


Gertrude was without doubt a heroic figure, yet she wore her impressive characteristics lightly. The late Caroline Doig, a fellow paediatric surgeon and the first woman on Council of the College fondly remembered Gertrude in later life, with a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 


I am thankful that I too can now count myself among the hundreds who have learnt so much from Gertrude Herzfeld in whose memory this award was established.

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