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The first female graduate of Manchester Medical School

The University of Manchester's annual Community Festival offers the perfect opportunity to revisit the archives and dig up some history about extraordinary graduates.

Dr Chisholm was the first female graduate of Manchester Medical School. Of course, as with many universities at the time, Manchester (then called Manchester Victoria University) only admitted men into many of their programmes.

However, in 1880, Manchester Victoria University received a charter to enable it to admit persons "male or female". Unfortunately, this did not come into effect immediately; it took much campaigning by the Manchester Association for the Higher Education of Women until, in 1883, the University began to admit women into the arts and science departments.

In 1898, Manchester Victoria University Medical School also began to admit women to its programme. This was a time of change for the University.

Catherine Chisholm, BA MB ChB MD CBE FRCP (1878-1952)

Dr Chisholm was the first woman to graduate in medicine from the Manchester Medical School in 1904. She was the daughter of Dr Kenneth Chisholm, a general practitioner, who encouraged her to take up medicine.

He advised her to do a degree in classics to establish herself at the University and, after receiving her BA in 1898, she entered the medical school – the first year the school admitted women.

Contrary to expectations, there was little controversy and most of the "male students were friendly and courteous". She was active in feminist politics and was mainly responsible for founding the Women's Students Athletics' Union (1899).

After graduating, she spent a year working at the women-run Clapham Maternity Hospital and a further six months at the Eldwick Sanitorium for Children in Yorkshire. In 1906, she returned to Manchester and set up practice near the University, drawing patients from female students and women in the area.

She was interested in all aspects of women's health; however, her ambition was to specialise in children’s diseases. She was active in the Infant Welfare Movement, adviser to the Santa Fina Society for Crippled Children, Medical Officer for the Manchester High School for Girls (MHSG) and Honorary Physician for women and children at the Chorlton-on-Medlock Dispensary.

From 1911, she was an adviser to the Manchester Child and Welfare Committee, which was concerned with the high infant mortality rate. In 1914 she founded the Manchester Babies Hospital for premature babies and infants with malnutrition.

After visiting children's hospitals in America in 1920, she expanded the hospital to include cases of rickets. A further expansion in 1935 included an operating theatre; the MBH was renamed the Duchess of York Hospital for Babies and Dr Chisholm was awarded her CBE.

She helped found the Medical Women's Federation (1917) and the Manchester Paediatrics Society (1948), and was the first woman president of the British Paediatric Society.

Research for this article was conducted by Dr Peter Mohr, a volunteer at the Museum of Medicine and Health in the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health.

For further stories and activities as part of the 2021 Community Festival, you can keep an eye on our Twitter accounts: @FBMH_SR and @ManMedMuseum. Register for our live panel discussion on Friday 18 June, Hearing health stories: Manchester Health and History.