Women's Ownership of Medical Knowledge in Tudor and Stuart England, 1485-1714

Lead Research Organisation: University of London
Department Name: Inst of English Studies


The work of women as medical practitioners - particularly of 'domestic' medicine inside the home - in early modern England has been conventionally underestimated. This is especially the case in Tudor and Stuart England, a 150-year period in which the practice of medicine formalised and transformed from folk medicine into science. Even after the first major hospital in Britain opened during the early Enlightenment in the 1720s, medicine was routinely performed by non-professional (male) medical practitioners and women provided casual medical care in domestic settings. Nuns ran conventual infirmaries and nursing orders, mothers wet-nursed, and women worked as midwives. Women were consumers, collectors, authors, and sharers of printed, manuscript, and oral medical knowledge. This PhD project aims to assess evidence of their knowledge networks, based on the rare books and archives of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and supported by Institute of English Studies (IES), School of Advanced Study, University of London, the UK's national centre for humanities research and a leading centre for book history.

Significant numbers of pre-Enlightenment medical documents in the RCP's collections were owned, used, or written by women. As the RCP was founded in 1518 to professionalise the practice of medicine in England, making it the oldest medical college in Britain, its collections document what information was available to the only legally sanctioned body of physicians in England. Women were barred from membership until 1909, but its members had relied on women's medical knowledge for centuries. For example, RCP archives hold around 50 medical receipt books, most of which were likely compiled by women. The RCP library holds nearly 7,000 pre-1700 printed books, of which many bear women's names. A full survey would provide a rich datasource for considering women's ownership of medical knowledge and contribute to the history of science and medicine, the history of the book, and the history of art and illustration.

This PhD project will build on research into the history of women's medical work by exploring evidence of women's medical knowledge in the holdings of the RCP, supported by the IES' expertise in book history. Through collections-based research, it will identify and assess provenance evidence of women's access to or ownership of medical books and manuscripts to map women's access to this knowledge, including for home cures. Concurrently, it will examine women as authors of medical texts and recipes, based on RCP holdings. This study will then compare medical information in the manuscripts to that in the printed texts, revealing the knowledge exchange between women who practiced medicine and the professional or licensed physicians who used the texts they wrote. This will allow the analysis of the reception history of women's medical knowledge in early modern/pre-Enlightenment England. Finally, it will assess the RCP's printed and manuscript corpora for evidence of women as medical practitioners.

It is supervised by Dr Elizabeth Savage, Lecturer in Book History and Communications, IES, and Professor Clare Lees, Director of the IES, with support from Katie Birkwood, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian, RCP.


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