Margaret Wylie Martin and a Dynasty of Women in Medicine

The papers of Margaret Wylie Martin, nee Thomas (1903-2002) provide a fascinating insight into the story of 4 generations of determined women, Margaret, her grandmother, mother and daughter.

Margaret Wylie Thomas graduated from the University of Glasgow with an MB with honours in 1927. She was a top student and won 11 first class certificates, several prizes, and 3 medals at a time when it was still not that common for women to study medicine.  So unusual, in fact, that when she gained a First-Class award for Clinical Surgery the words ‘Mr’ and ‘himself’ on the certificate had to be altered to make it appropriate for a female recipient.

Image of certificate

Certificate altered for female recipient [UGC227/2/1/3]

Following graduation Margaret worked in child and maternity medicine at Belvidere and Mearnskirk hospitals in Glasgow. It was here that she carried out research into Puerperal Sepsis, a bacterial infection following childbirth or miscarriage which was a common cause of maternal deaths at that time.  Her thesis on the topic was highly regarded and she graduated with an MD in 1931. The collection contains Margaret’s certificates and copies of her published papers but also more personal documents which give a fuller picture of her life.

Black and white photograph of 7 men and 1 woman in a formal posed group

Mearnskirk Hospital Resident Medical Staff 1931 [UGC227/4/9/3]

It must have been obvious from an early age that Margaret was a clever child.  We learn from her notes that as a girl she had a Saturday job in her grandmother’s hardware shop. This was at the time around WW1 when supplies were scarce.  Margaret used her ingenuity to get stock from wholesalers in order to keep the shelves filled and customers happy.  She also applied and won a scholarship to help with her education at Hutcheson’s Girls’ Grammar School.

Her earliest role models and inspirations would have been around this time.  Her grandmother was certainly one of these. Widowed early and left with 7 young children to raise on her own, she later opened up the successful hardware business in which Margaret helped out. Her grandmother must have been a very independent woman with a keen eye for business and strong work ethic.  The Glasgow Barrows market was round the corner from the shop and Margaret comments that it was frequented by many educated people who also came into her grandmother’s shop, including Professors, engineers, and students.

 They would come in to the shop to buy bits of paper to wrap up their trophies, so I came to know some interesting people especially in the later years when I had become a real student myself

Image of a page of manuscript notes in black ink on white paper.

Margaret’s notes on the Glasgow Barrows [UGC227/6/14]

Further inspiration would have come from her mother, Margaret Thomas (nee Rae), who brought up her children on stories of her years as a District Nurse, and would have influenced Margaret’s decision to study medicine. Her mother had spent 2 years studying nursing at Barnhill Hospital, a training hospital in Glasgow (later to become Foresthall Hospital) and became a Queen’s Jubilee Nurse in January 1899. Her mother must have been another very determined woman, as Margaret herself says

It was difficult in these days for highly motivated young women to get such training as many could not afford the premiums then required by the better known institutions.

Many of us nowadays will find it surprising to hear that despite all the years of training and expense, that within 18 months of qualifying, Margaret Thomas had given up her nursing career to become a wife. At that time married women were not allowed to train or work as nurses and it was not unknown for women to keep their marriages a secret in order to keep their jobs.

Black and white photograph of 4 nurses standing beside 2 rows of beds in hospital ward.

Nurses at Barnhill Hospital [UGC227/4/3/3]

Although a generation later the practice still applied (and in fact continued into the 1960s) and, like her mother, Margaret Wylie Martin had to give up her career when she married Russell Dickson Martin in 1936.  Through marriage, however, Margaret’s sphere of influential women expanded.  Her mother-in-law, Emily Winifred Martin, née Dickson (1866-1944) was the first female Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and had to fight against discrimination throughout her career as a gynaecologist [1].  Emily succeeded in breaking away from the practice of married women being barred from working when she had to return to medical practice when her husband returned from WW1 with shell-shock and was unable to work.

Despite having given up her career it is obvious that Russell encouraged Margaret to support him in his.  The collection contains a letter where her husband discusses a system he was trying to set up at work, obviously inviting advice from his wife.  Russell and Margaret had 3 children, including a daughter, Margaret Melville Rae Martin (1941-2005), who also went on to study medicine and graduated with an MB in 1965 from the University of Edinburgh and went on to have a successful career in Obstetrics and Gynaecology [2].  Margaret’s papers contain documents relating to the time her daughter Rae spent working as a Consultant Gynaecologist at St. Paul’s Hospital, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1973-1976.  Like her mother before her, Margaret would have been a major influence on her daughter following in her footsteps and continuing the dynasty of Martin women pursuing a career in medicine.

Find Margaret Wylie Martin  on the University Story, or visit the archives to study the Papers of Margaret Wylie Martin (née Thomas), 1903-2002, medical graduate, University of Glasgow, Scotland.


[1] RCSI Heritage – Emily Winifrid Dickson

[2] Papers of Margaret Melville Rae Martin MB ChB Edin., (1941-2005)





Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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