At the front of the main building of Queen’s University, Belfast, is a War Memorial commemorating the staff, students and graduates who gave their lives in the two World Wars. It was first dedicated in July 1924. Among the fallen of the First World War there is the name of one woman embossed on the bronze plates beneath the statue of a winged Victory sustaining a fallen youth.
‘Tate, Isabel Addey, Doctor, Friend’s War Victims’ Relief Committee, on Staff of Military Hospital Malta’
She is also commemorated on St. Andrew’s War Memorial in Burnley, Lancashire where out of the 92 names she is the only woman. Her name also appears on the Women’s War Memorial in Yorkminster, one of a very few ‘medical women’ commemorated on a series of wooden screens.
Behind this name lies the story of the remarkable achievement of one the earlier female doctors to qualify in the British Isles.
Isobel Addey Tate was born in Tartaraghan in May 1874, the daughter of John Tate and Isabella Cherry. Tartaraghan is a very small village a couple of miles from Loughgall in County Armagh. Her maternal grandparents were Isabella Addey (Addy) and Richard Cherry, both from the Loughgall area. Her father, John Tate, was a Portadown merchant. His father, Dawson Tate, had owned the Bannview Weaving Factory in Portadown and John had links to the textile trade. At the time of his death in 1892 he owned a boot factory in Main Street Portadown, an address that his widow and some of their children appear at in the 1901 Irish census. Isobel had a number of siblings, in the 1911 Irish Census her widowed mother is recorded as having had 10 children with 8 surviving. The family are noted in the Irish census as being Methodist, although in her working life Isobel appears to have moved to the Church of England. It would be fascinating to know what motivated a girl from her background to train to be a doctor, certainly not a common choice in women of her generation.
The first woman to officially become a doctor in the British Isles was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who qualified despite enormous difficulties in 1866. She was the first woman member of the BMA (British Medical Association) who subsequently closed admission to other women for almost twenty years. Following her success an Act was passed in 1876 allowing women to enter the medical profession. However, women doctors were to remain a very small number during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; census returns listed 25 female doctors in England and Wales in 1881, increasing to 495 in 1911. By 1886 there were 50 women registered with the General Medical Council, it is notable that 44 of those had gained their qualifications through Irish Universities. In 1877 the King’s and Queen’s College of Ireland (later to become the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland) was the first medical body in the British Isles to allow women to register. Women could sit the examinations, register and get a licence to practise medicine. In 1885 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland extended its educational facilities to women and recognised the examination results from the London School of Medicine for Women. Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland was the first College in the British Isles to allow women to take its examination. In 1886 these two Irish institutions agreed to a registerable conjoint degree; all candidates had to pass medicine, surgery and midwifery before admission to the GMC register.
In the 19th century Ireland had a number of Universities and Colleges including the three Queen’s Colleges, founded under the Queen’s Colleges (Ireland) Act, 1845, in Galway, Cork and Belfast. One of the intentions of their foundation was to encourage higher education for Catholics and non-Conformists at a time when many universities in the British Isles were only open to Anglicans. The more liberal attitude to dissent may have been one of the factors encouraging women to try to enter as undergraduates in a range of subjects. In 1888 Queen’s College Belfast admitted their first female medical student, this was the path that Isobel was to follow a few years later.
Isobel matriculated at Queen’s College Belfast in 1893/4 and graduated with her medical degree in 1899, one of 3 women and 47 men; there were only 5 women medical graduates in that year from the total of Irish medical institutions. On 8th Sept 1899 she registered with the General Medical Council at Ireland. This was a considerable achievement, but even qualified women doctors did not have the clear and easy career path that their modern counterparts enjoy.
After graduation she pursued her career by moving to England and in 1901 the census reveals her to be in Beverley, east Yorkshire, living in Barr House, St Mary’s Parish, in the establishment of Robert Carlisle Appleton, a surgeon, where she is described as a ‘medical assistant.’ She fully qualified as a doctor of medicine in 1902. She was appointed as resident physician at Hailey sanatorium, Ipsden, near Oxford; this appears to have been a small establishment treating TB. In 1904 she obtained the Diploma in Public Health from Victoria University Manchester she was probably one of the earliest women to achieve this qualification. It is worth noting that Catherine Chisholm, the first female to graduate in medicine from that university in the same year.
‘Of news I have to record that Dr. Isobel Tate, the woman doctor at the Burnley Workhouse, has obtained the Diploma of Public Health from the Victoria University — the only lady in the kingdom, so it is said, who has ever secured that honour.’
(Ada S. Ballin, Womanhood, Volume 12. 1904)
Posts for women doctors were not widely available and many focussed work in public health and with children. In 1904, with her qualifications gained, she took up a post as resident medical officer at Burnley Union Infirmary. Burnley was a major centre of the textile trade in the early 20th century, thriving town with a population that would reach 100,000 in 1911. The post would have been a demanding, dealing with the Workhouse inmates, probably around 500 people, in a range of medical duties including admission health examinations, advice to the management on dietary matters, dealing with mentally ill (‘lunatics’) inmates, advising on physical living conditions, taking care of pregnant women and babies, confirming deaths and all aspects of routine medical care along with administrative demands. The inmates were segregated by sex and would have included children; the infirmary included ‘imbecile wards.’ The post was a residential and supported by nursing staff. The infirmary building had been upgraded to higher standards in 1895 and new accommodation blocks for the workhouse had been built in the early years of the 20th century.
She left Burnley in 1908 to take up the post of Medical Inspector of school children for Shropshire and the Lancashire Education Committee. She was clearly a valued member of the Burnley community and that she would be included on their War Memorial suggests that she was very much accepted. In 1908 a national system of school medical inspection had been inaugurated and this new, growing field attracted women doctors. Work with children may have been seen as ‘suitable’ for women and dealing with the medical needs of female pupils may have been viewed as particularly appropriate for a woman. It was however, a speciality that was relatively poorly paid and offered little career advancement or challenge. These restrictions may explain Isobel’s later career.
In the 1911 Census she is living as a boarder in Shrewsbury Boys’ School, she is described a ‘School Medical Inspector’ and her employer is noted as Shropshire Council. The building is known as ‘Old Porch House’ and is now a listed building Living at the same address are the headmaster and his wife, a number of teachers and a few pupils who are noted as boarders. This is the formal address that she still used in 1916 and the one that appears in the British Medical Register in 1915. In late 1911 she took up a post in Preston as a School Medical Inspector. In 1914 she became a Public Health Inspector with Manchester City Council.
She is referenced in the Annual Report for 1914 of Chief Medical Officer for the Board of Education (HMSO, 1915) for research on the relationship between defective teeth and malnutrition in children in the Lancashire area. This would be the type of activity associated with the growing field of public health.
The outbreak of World War created new opportunities for women and gave Isobel an opportunity for an adventurous range of career experiences.
In 1915 she joined The Serbian Relief Fund, in a unit set up by Mabel Anne St Clair Stobart, known as the Third Serbian Relief Unit. The Serbian Relief Fund was one of number of humanitarian initiatives trying to alleviate the serious medical problems in this part of the Balkans. Queen Mary was a patroness of the Serbian Relief Fund, Board members included such prominent people as Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Cardinal Born. Serbia had been the trigger point of the War and was fighting to maintain its independence from the onslaught of the Austrians. Mabel Stobart’s Unit had already established a hospital in Kragujevatz and in the summer of 1915 she was extending this service through the creation of a number of dispensaries in surrounding towns to serve the civilian population. Each dispensary was staffed by a woman doctor, two nurses, a cook, and an interpreter. However the dispensary system did not survive for long as Germany sent forces to support the Austrians in their invasion of Serbia. The Serbian army withdrew,the dispensaries were closed and all the staff gathered in Kragujevatz. When this city was no longer safe, Mabel Stobart’s volunteers joined the Serbian army’s desperate retreat. In the middle of winter the doctors and nurses from the Serbian Relief Fund fled with the army and refugees across the Kosovo plain. The convoy of Serbians and medical staff crossed the dangerous Montenegrin Mountains to reach the safety of the ports of the Adriatic Coast. They finally reached San Giovanni de Medua on the coast where they were rescued by ship and taken to Brindisi from where they travelled back to Britain.
Mabel Stobart was a radical, a feminist, a supporter of women’s suffrage who believed that women could win the vote by actions such as helping to defend Britain against Germany. A writer, a healthcare pioneer and very determined woman, Mabel had already much experience of organising field hospitals before she became involved in Serbia. At this time she was in her 50s, married for a second time and a woman of great energy, zeal and courage. She was a committed spiritualist and anti-militarist.
In her passionate, wildly overwritten memoir, The Flaming Sword in Serbia and Elsewhere (1916) Mabel Stobart writes about her team
The unit numbered forty-five, and comprised seven women doctors–Mrs.King-May Atkinson, M.B., Ch.B., Miss Beatrice Coxon, D.R.C.P.S.R., Miss Helen B. Hanson, M.D., B.S., D.P.H., Miss Mabel Eliza King-May, M.B., Ch.B., Miss Edith Maude Marsden, M.B., Ch.B., Miss Catherine Payne, M.B., Miss Isobel Tate, M.D., N.U.I.–eighteen trained nurses, together with cooks, orderlies, chauffeurs, and interpreters. The principle that women could successfully conduct a war hospital in all its various departments, had now been amply proved, and had been conceded even by the sceptical. The original demonstration had already borne ample fruit. Units of Scottish women were doing excellent work in France, and also in Serbia, and even in London, women doctors had now been given staff rank in military hospitals. The principle was firmly established, and I thought, therefore, that no harm would now be done by accepting the services of a few men orderlies and chauffeurs.
Later she describes in rather theatrical terms the risks they were taking
Of all these doctors, nurses, orderlies, administrators, chauffeurs, interpreters, how many would return? One should be taken and the other left? Laughing, singing, acting, reading, playing cards, flirting, quarrelling–how many were doing these things for the last time? Towards what fate were each and all being borne? Were we, as adjuncts of the Serbian Army, sailing to life or death, to victory or defeat?
She notes that the x-ray department was under the management of ‘Dr Tate and Mr Agar.’ It was of great value to the unit
The X-ray department, under Dr. Tate and Mr. Agar, was also much in demand. Indeed, great was the confidence shown by both women and men in the skill of our women doctors.
Mabel Stobart was also very aware that women doctors were of great value to the female population , especially in relation to intimate health matters such as venereal disease.
Despite the purple prose, the descriptions of social engagements, name dropping (she dedicates the book to H.R.H. Alexander, Crown Prince of Serbia) and the endless opinions of the author, it is clear that her team of medical staff faced real dangers and difficulties with considerable courage. Typhoid was endemic in the area, linked to movements of troops and prisoners in cramped quarters. Mabel Stobart and her staff succumbed to various illnesses, including typhoid (although they were to some degree protected by vaccination), several died of infections and they were dealing with serious illness and afflictions in their patients. At some point in the autumn of 1915 Isabella appears to have contracted typhoid and been invalided home, she was therefore not involved in the final dramatic escape of the unit from an increasingly dangerous Serbia.
After this initial experience of war, Isobel Addey Tate spent a period working in the Graylingwell Hospital. This was an asylum on the outskirts of Chichester which on the outbreak of war was requisitioned to serve as a Military Hospital. In the spring of 1915 it handled casualties from the Western Front, brought back to England for treatment. Isobel had already had experience of dealing with war injuries in Serbia, so this would have been of great value. She appears to have worked in the radiology department.
However, she did not stay there for long. In early 1916, Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Surgeon at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital and Dean of the London School of Medicine for Women, approached all the women on the Medical Register to work with the wounded troops from the various fronts. The woman doctors were not treated as equals since they were not awarded rank, grading, uniforms, or even the ration and billeting allowance that all male doctors received. Isobel Addey Tate volunteered for service with RAMC and embarked for Malta 24th August 1916.
She initially took up duties at St Paul’s Military Hospital and subsequently Military Hospital Valletta. The casualties from Gallipoli and Salonika were treated in the military hospitals in Malta, although this reduced when German submarines attacked hospital ships. In early 1917 Isobel was in charge of the Bacteriological Unit in the Valletta Military Hospital, this was to be her last post for on 28th January 1917 she died of ‘congestion of the brain’ (due to typhoid fever) at Victoria Junction, Sliema, Malta.
She was buried on 30th January 1917. The pall bearers were Lieutenant Colonel Kennet Bruce Barnett, Major Timothy William Octavius Sexton, Major Surpell, Captain Sutherland, Captain Ker, lieutenants O’Reilly and E. J. Dermott. Kennet Bruce Barnett was born in Holywood, County Down and was a medical graduate of Queen College, Belfast, at the time of Isobel’s funeral he was Officer Commanding Floriana Hospital, Malta. The inscription on her grave in the cemetery at Pieta, Malta reads
In memory of Isobel Addy Tate, MD, DPH, attached Royal Army Medical Corps who died 28th January 1917 while working for the sick and wounded at Valletta Military Hospital.
The British Medical Journal published a brief obituary
Her Will was probated in Belfast on 6 Jun 1917, her mother Isabella Tate of Ruskerry, Donegal Park Avenue, Belfast inherited her estate of £323.00. In the London probate, Isobel has the same address as her mother. Donegal Park Avenue would have been a ‘good’ address in the developing North Belfast and members of the family continued to use it in the following decade.
Isobel Addey Tate lived and died before women had the vote, the path she chose was not a simple or easy one but women like her did much to alter the way women were to live and work in the 20th century.
With thanks to a member of the Cherry family and a researcher in Burnley who provided additional information.
An excellent book that covers the subject of Irish medical education for women in this period is
The text of The Flaming Sword in Serbia and beyond can be found in a full, but rather poorly edited edition at
A Note on Mabel Stobart
Mabel Stobart was a remarkable woman and her obituary in The Times 8th December, 1954 briefly sums up her life and works. She had been married twice, Greenhalgh was the name of her second husband.
Mrs. Greenhalgh. widow of Mr. John Stobart Greenhalgh, died at Bournemouth yesterday at the age of 92.
She was Mabel Anne, daughter of Sir Samuel Bagster Boulton, Bt., chairman of the London Labour Reconciliation Board from 1889 to 1913, and she was born on February 3, 1862. She married in 1884 St Clair Kelburn Mulholland Stobart, of Mount Bagnall, co. Down. He died in 1908, and she married secondly, in 1911, John Stobart Greenhalgh, a barrister of the Inner Temple. He died in 1928. Hers was a most adventurous life, for she was in charge of military hospitals in two wars, the Balkan War of 1912 and the 1914-18 War. In the first she commanded a detachment of the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps (which she founded) with the Bulgarian Army in Thrace, and in August, 1914, she organized women’s hospital units for the St. John Ambulance Association and went out to Belgium with one of the units. She was captured by German troops and imprisoned at Achen, where she was condemned to be shot as a spy, but was later released and continued her hospital work in Belgium. In 1915 she went out to Serbia with a hospital unit, under the auspices of the Serbian Relief Fund. Although the unit soon had to make an arduous withdrawal over the mountains of Montenegro and Albania in face of the German advance, it was responsible for the treatment of 11,000 sick men, women, and children.
For a time she lived in South Africa and British Columbia, and in 1924 she became chairman and leader of the Spiritualist Community. This office she held until 1941. Her interest in spiritualism was great. and she was the author of a number of works dealing with the subject, published under the name by which she chose to be generally known – Mrs St. Clair Stobart. Her wartime exploits were contained in her two books, War and Women and The Flaming Sword – in Serbia and Elsewhere, and her autobiography, Miracles and Adventures, appeared in 1936.