Portraits Of Six Women Surgeons Go On Show At The Royal College Of Surgeons

By Marian Cleary | 22 July 2008
Photograph of a woman standing in front of a portrait

Phyllis George FRCS - the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. © Jane Brettle

Exhibition preview: Six Women Surgeons at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, Lincoln's Inn Fields until December 1.

A visit to the Royal College of Surgeons of England building in Lincoln's Inn Fields is always an exercise in respect. While visitors to their magnificent free Hunterian Museum wander through, members of the college and staff go about their business.

Looking down on all this are the portraits of the many people who have made the surgical profession what it is. Not least among them, John Hunter himself whose anatomy collection forms the basis of the Hunterian Museum itself.

Photograph of a woman in a medical setting

Linda de Cossart FRCS - vascular surgeon and Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. © Jane Brettle

Those who have shaped the work of the college, which in its present form dates from 1800, were quite naturally immortalised on canvas in various artistic traditions down the years and today the college has hundreds of portraits in its care.

However, a new exhibition aims to show that over the last century things have begun to change and there is now something missing from the collection. This missing element - eminent female surgeons.

Simon Chaplin, Director of Museums for the college, has this as central to the reasoning behind the latest commission:“It is important that the college’s collections develop to reflect the changing nature of the surgical profession.”

Photograph of a woman holding a piece of medical equpiment

Anne Moore FRCS - neurosurgeon and served as Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England from 2005 to 2008. © Jane Brettle

The commission was given to photographer Jane Brettle and aims to begin to plug the gap and change the public face of surgery to better reflect the fact that today in some medical schools over 70% of the intake is women.

Inspiration for Brettle's honorific portrait photographs come from the work of neo-classicist, Ingres (1780 – 1867) in their composition, scale and colouration. These are not the soft images of women for which he is famed however. Brettle takes her lead from his male portraiture of status and formality.

The commission also takes its inspiration from Brettle’s own 2003 exhibition ‘airside’, in which she took women at the forefront of their professions and depicted them in their work settings but not in their uniforms. Works from this collection are now on show at National Galleries of Scotland and City Art Centre, Edinburgh.

Photograph of a woman in front of a stuatue

Professor Averil Mansfield CBE FRCS - retired vascular surgeon, first female Professor of Surgery in the UK and Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1998 to 2000. © Jane Brettle

Six Women Surgeons at the Royal College of Surgeons is not about women doing – it is about women being. Being at the top of their profession and central to its development and depicted in large-scale full-length or three-quarter length portraits.

Shown either within college spaces or holding the equipment central to their work, the links to the many other portraits created down the years heralding the sitters’ skills and status is clear.

This is not however merely an exercise in historical homage. As Simon Chaplin says: “Too often, portrait collections are seen as purely historical. We believe that our portrait collection is an active resource and one of the best ways of demonstrating how surgery is evolving.”

Photograph of a woman in front of some medical equipment

Leela Kapila FRCS - retired paediatric surgeon and served as Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England from 2003 to 2004. © Jane Brettle

All six women have played a part in shaping their profession, they have also been central to the activities of the college itself. The choice of both retired and practising surgeons also gives an indication of the initial pioneering that brought women into the profession.

Phyllis George, for instance, was the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons of England back in 1979 while Linda de Cossart, is a practising vascular surgeon and is currently Vice-President of the College.

The legacy of the past is however apparent in the use of the college as a context for some of the portraits. For instance, John Hunter is there in the background in two of the pictures, whilst new innovations at the college are also used to show the future. For instance, Leela Kapila stands in front of the college’s new Wolfson Surgical Skills Centre.

In marking the work of these women with these portraits, the college is acknowledging that time shapes but also changes any institution. It also demonstrates a commitment to this change.

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