Blog, Source, Women's History

The letters of Dr. Edith Pechey by Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri

In our latest fascinating blog, Dr. Namrata R. Ganneri examines the archive of one of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, Edith Pechey.

On 6 July 2019, the ‘Edinburgh Seven’- Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson Marshall and Emily Bovell – were awarded posthumous honorary MBChB degrees. [1]A group of current students at the Edinburgh Medical School collected the degrees on behalf of these pioneering women who had enrolled for a degree in medicine  at the University of Edinburgh 150 years ago.[2] In the United Kingdom, the fight for women to qualify as doctors was led by Sophia Jex-Blake (1840-1912) who advertised in  newspapers for like-minded women to join her so that the  University could be persuaded  to hold classes for women. Of the handful of women who answered Jex-Blake’s call, (Mary) Edith Pechey (1845-1908) became a close friend and ally, and went on to have a long and successful medical career in India.

Pechey practised for six years in Leeds before embarking on a journey to Bombay where she would head the Cama Hospital for Women and Children, intervene in ongoing debates on ‘native’  women’s health and  eventually marry a man many years her junior taking on the name Edith Pechey-Phipson, after her husband Herbert Musgrave Phipson (1849–1936). Pechey died without publishing a memoir and therefore her  unpublished archived  letters preserved   in the Edinburgh University Library offer an intimate record of the life of a Victorian woman professional who took advantage of the opportunities created by empire.

The fifteen letters in the special collection include letters written to her maternal aunts in England and a single letter written to her sister Nell. The first letter dates from 1883 which was the year of Pechey’s  arrival to India and the last few letters were written whilst she was sailing in Europe in 1892, though Pechey finally left India only in 1905. In all likelihood, Pechey was in regular correspondence with many relatives though none of these have yet become available to historians and one cannot be sure if the letters have indeed survived.  Pechey was close to the maternal side of her family, the Rottons, and many letters were addressed to “darling Auntie”(Miss Rotton). Pechey’s mother, Sarah Rotton had passed away in 1875 and Pechey’s letters are suffused with loving references to her aunts and cousins indicating that she kept up with news of her immediate as well as her extended family. In fact, in one of her early letters to her aunts, she was dismayed that “that naughty little old man” (her father) had not written to her whilst in another she requested her aunt to pass on the same letter to her father.

Such letters possibly  were collective affairs and the audience was never the same as the addressee. Perhaps some of them were also read aloud in company. Did this reduce the likelihood of intimate confidences? The forty-four year old Pechey chose to tell her aunt about finding love and companionship in Herbert Phipson in early 1889, notably a year after the death of her father. Pechey’s clear-eyed and yet cautious declaration to her family, despite the temporal and spatial interruptions between the writing and reading of the letter has to my mind  a unique dialogic quality. Pechey was probably already  married by the time this letter was read.

…We have known each other so well, and worked together in so many things these five years, that there is no reason to wait for anything, and we are getting older every day. I am four years older than he is, at which I know you will shake your head, but the real objection to the marriage is that he is so unselfish that there is a great danger of my becoming a mass of selfishness… What seems more certain is that we shall be very happy together… Will you tell them at Shrewton, and any other friends who care to hear?

However, this same letter also contained the elements of what motivated Pechey to write to Auntie Rotton in the first place-a  desire to describe and explain her new life, to make sense of the novelty as well as create a record about a momentous experience. In this letter, before writing about her upcoming wedding with Phipson,  Pechey wrote a detailed description of her week-long holiday with the Fords (and Herbert Phipson)  in the city of “Bhijapur” (Bijapur) . She enclosed photographs of the magnificent city’s mosques and described “…a tomb with a wonderful dome, larger than that of St. Paul’s, and with the most wonderful echo. If one sings low the three notes of a chord, an angelic voice aloft repeats them, and then blends them into a chord. It is wonderfully beautiful.” ( Gol Gumbaz, Bijapur)

This 1889 letter was in fact one in a sequence of letters which had descriptions of  the fruits and flowers of India, and its “birds of very gay plumage”. In 1887,  when she had an hour to spare whilst on her way to consult a minor princess  to “Oodeypore [Udaipur] one of the most picturesque places in India”  she decided to “amuse” her aunt by writing about her long journey, rendered bearable by “a box of fifty cigarettes” and reading “Darwin”.

Pechey’s letters bear a characteristic common to most personal letters – “a creative tension between careful concealment and descriptive detail ,… between writing for self and writing for others…” and hence one sees so little of Pechey’s professional life in these letters. [3]One hardly hears of her battles with the government for equal pay with the British male doctors or the challenges in running both the Cama Hospital and the Jafar Sulleman Dispensary in Bombay. And thus concludes another long letter to Auntie Rotton, “…  I am busy all day long there seems so little to tell as you would not care to hear about diseases? …”

 

Letters of Mrs Mary Edith Pechey-Phipson M.D., 1884-1892, Edinburgh University Library (Special Collections)

Lutzker, Edythe. (1973). Edith Pechey-Phipson, M.D.: The Story of England’s Foremost Pioneering Woman Doctor. New York: Exposition Press.

Namrata R. Ganneri is a Commonwealth-Rutherford Fellow (2018-2020) based in the Centre for Global Health Histories, Department of History, University of York, UK. She is on study leave from her permanent position in the Department of History,  S.N.D.T. Women’s  University, Mumbai.   She has recently contributed an entry on  Edith Pechey to the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing  and  is enthused by the idea of scripting and directing a play on the lives of women doctors in late nineteenth century Bombay.

[1]  M.A. Elston. ‘Edinburgh Seven (act. 1869–1873)’,  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,    Oxford University Press, May 28, 2015.  Date of access 1 September  2019, <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-61136>

[2] ‘First female medical students get degrees at last’ , BBC News, 6 July 2019.

. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-48885287

[3] Alistair Thomson,  ‘Life Stories and Historical Analysis’ in Simon Gunn  and  Lucy Faire (eds.)  Research Methods for History  (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press: 2012), pp. 101-120, p. 105.

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