‘Lady doctors’ introduced at Dispensary

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Dr Frederick Lionel de Jersey, who in 1900 gave a damning report on the state of health in Morpeth, resigned in June of that year.

On November 9, 1901, the Morpeth Herald reported that: “Miss Marion J. Ross, M.D., junior surgeon of Macclesfield General Hospital, was unanimously appointed House Surgeon.

"Since Dr de Jersey resigned the appointment, some 18 months ago, the Committee of Management have been unable to receive any applicants for the vacancy, so they asked Dr Kunz to do the work of the Dispensary until they succeeded in getting a House Surgeon.

“Some two years ago, the rules were altered so that they could appoint a lady doctor. There is no doubt that the Governors on Monday night took a very important step, but owing to the great difficulty to obtain medical men, it was inevitable that circumstances would sooner or later compel them to appoint a lady doctor as House Surgeon.

“That being so, it was good policy on their part, when they got a good chance of securing a really clever and highly qualified lady, to just take it, so that the prejudice, which is sure to be met with at first, may be the better removed.”

Dr Ross had first class Honours in pathology, material medica, anatomy, physiology, ophthalmology, zoology and physics, being in several cases first in the first class.

Since she treated the poor of both sexes at Macclesfiield, the Herald mused that: “Most of the cases at Morpeth Dispensary are women and children, and Miss Ross is of such a lady-like and amiable appearance that any objection to her attending male patients will quickly disappear.”

To the Committee's regret, Dr Ross resigned a year later to take practice in Glasgow. Her successor was another highly qualified lady, Miss Agnes Pringle, MB, ChB.

In October 1914, having served for 12 years to the Committee’s great satisfaction, Miss Pringle resigned to become a school medical inspector in Newcastle. The salary, £300 p.a., was double what she was paid at Morpeth.

Three months later: “The Secretary reported that there had been no response to the advertisements for the post of House Surgeon. It was agreed that the President and Hon. Secretary should meet the Medical Committee to ascertain what arrangement could be made to carry on the work of the Institution.”

One of this Committee, Dr Philip, suggested that the town should be divided into four areas. He and Drs Brumell, Kunz and Dickie would each take an area, and all the Dispensary patients in any one area would go to the allocated doctor. The doctors would receive a salary of £5 each, paid every two months, making a total cost of £120 per year. This was adopted.

It was the end of an era. On April 19: “It was agreed that the Secretary be empowered to advertise the Sitting Room and Bed Room to be let. That in the event of a suitable tenant the rent might be 10/- per week, clear of all attendance, the attendance to be left as a matter to be arranged between the tenant and Mrs Nicholson the housekeeper.”

It is clear that ‘attendance’ was to continue, even though there was no doctor. Dispensing, however, came to an end.

An application from an association to do with mothers and infants to use the surgery and waiting room was approved “subject to proper control being guaranteed”.

In February 1915, the Herald reported that the new arrangement was only intended to go on until the end of the war “when the governors hope to secure someone to take up the appointment”.

In March 1919, however, the Committee recognised that it was impossible. By then, even a newly qualified doctor could command £300 a year.

Since the Dispensary no longer dispensed anything, payments to chemists became a regular occurrence. These included A.G. Marshall, F.E. Schofield, James Whittle, and later Mason’s and Boots. It normally came to about £25-£30 per quarter, but in July 1928 the total was unusually large, almost £45, being for 280 prescriptions with 459 items on them.

Dr Philip’s arrangement lasted until March 1927, when the Hon. Secretary wrote as follows to all four doctors: “The House Committee have had under consideration the relative distribution of work thrown upon the Doctors under the present area system, as disclosed by an examination of the prescriptions for several months past. These show conclusively that the number of cases attended by some are out of all proportion to those under the care of others.

“They therefore suggest that instead of the town being divided into districts, as at present, free choice of doctors should be allowed the patients and a unit system of payment adopted — each ticket issued by a subscriber to a patient being considered a unit.

“The tickets should be sent to the Secretary and duly counted and the total cash as at present paid for a Quarter, divided into the corresponding number of units.”

The doctors accepted the new plan and the old scheme closed with payments of £2 10s each for March 1927.

At the first quarter, April to June, Dr Philip returned 47 tickets and received £11 18s 11d, Dr Dickie 45 and £11 8s 9d, Dr Kunz 16 and £4 1s 4d, and the partnership of Drs Brumell and Dagger 10 and £2 10s 10d. The sum so divided was £30, making £120 per year.

In 1914, the last full year when there was a House Surgeon, there were 534 cases. This was consistent with earlier experience. It had, besides, been found that the National Insurance Act 1911 made little difference to the numbers, a fact that Miss Pringle did not find surprising since the Act did not cover wives, children or the unemployed.

Under the area scheme, the Committee had no means of knowing the number of patients, but it seems not to have fluctuated much. In 1928 it was 521, and in 1929, 540. Instead, the Secretary made a practice of reporting on the number of prescriptions issued, together with a few general remarks about the health of the town.

By this measure, the peak of activity came at the height of the depression. The numbers were: 1924, 1,288; 1925, 1,425; 1926, 1,549; 1927, 1,875; 1928, 2,072; 1929, 1,870; 1930, 2,047, and 1931 about 3,000.

The number was about the same in 1933, but then rose even higher: 1934, 3,080; 1935, 3,047.

It fell to 2,600 in 1936, and at the AGM in February 1938, the Hon. Secretary, Mr J.R. Mitchell, said: “There had been an absence of severe epidemics which, combined with an improvement in trade, might account for the reduction in the number of prescriptions issued from 2,600 to 2,000.”

Acknowledgements: The artefacts belonging to the Morpeth Dispensary are now preserved at the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn. They were photographed by kind permission of the Trustees of Dispensary.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley by Roger Hawkins, 48 pages, illustrated, is now on sale at Morpeth TIC, Newgate News and T&G Allan.