A Surgical First: Louisa Brandreth Aldrich Blake

 

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Statues are topical right now and creating all kinds of interest globally. But what do you do when you know nothing at all about a statue and why it was erected? Here’s the story of how, it it weren’t for a statue, I would never have found out about the remarkable work of Louisa Brandreth Aldrich Blake.

If it hadn’t been for a meeting at the BMA in London I would most probably never have heard  of Louisa Brandreth Aldrich Blake. It was a hot day and most of us spent the lunch break outdoors. A colleague and I walked in Tavistock Square Gardens near the meeting  room to get some fresh air when we happened to come across Louisa’s statue in a corner.

My colleague who is a surgeon, paused and read the inscription. “I’ve never heard of her,” he said. Neither had I. We both resolved to look her up and find out, somewhat bothered that here was a statue to someone remarkable but we had no idea who she was.

Louisa Brandreth Aldrich-Blake was born in Chingford, Essex in 1865 and was brought up in Wales. After her education at Cheltenham Ladies College she studied medicine , graduating with first class honours with a Bachelors in Medicine, Bachelors in Surgery, and a medical degree from the London School of Medicine for Women. Not content with this, Louisa achieved a doctorate from the University of London in 1894, followed by a Masters in Surgery in 1895. She was the first woman to get this qualification.

Louisa went on to work as an assistant surgeon at the New Hospital for Women and Children in London, quickly rising through the ranks to a senior surgeon and also working at the Royal Free Hospital in London. She was the first woman to be appointed surgical registrar.

During World War One she volunteered on holidays at the Front, operating on wounded troops as a consulting surgeon. Louisa earned the nickname “Madame la Générale” from the patients. She wrote to every female doctor on the Medical Register encouraging them join the Royal Army Medical Corps. This was at a time when women who were surgeons were not highly regarded.

Louisa Brandreth Aldrich-Blake is known for her pioneering work in cervical and rectal cancers. She was the first to operate in these two areas of cancer. She pioneered and led new developments in these surgical techniques, and particularly in taking on the Wertheim procedure for cervical cancer. Louisa was dedicated to teaching students and became the dean of the London School of Medicine for Women in 1919.

Louisa died in 1925, following a battle with cancer. Her legacy lives on in that she paved the way for other women to train as doctors and in particular enter the world of surgery.

On that day when I walked through Tavistock Square Gardens I’m so glad I stopped to learn something about a statue and the incredible story  of the woman who set the direction for others to follow. It now means a lot more to me and tells the story behind an inspirational woman.

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