Beulah Bewley: Doctor who overcame sexism in the 1950s to excel in her field

A leader of research into the effects of smoking on children and young people, she became president of the Medical Women's Federation and treasurer at the General Medical Council

Bewley charted her life in her 2016 autobiography ‘My Life as a Woman and Doctor’
Bewley charted her life in her 2016 autobiography ‘My Life as a Woman and Doctor’

“My successes came despite the first lesson I was brought up with as a woman,” said the pioneering doctor Dame Beulah Bewley, who has died aged 88. “We were trained and educated into being second-class people”.

Dr ​Bewley was born Beulah Rosemary Knox, in Londonderry. She was the second of three daughters for John Benjamin Knox, a bank manager, and Ina Eagleson Charles, who came from a prominent Ulster Protestant family. When her family moved to Kilkenny during the Second World War, however, Bewley attended a Roman Catholic convent school where, during a summer party, a friend pretending to be a fortune teller told her she would be “buried at Westminster Abbey”.

Bewley knew she wanted to be a doctor from an early age. She wasn’t put off by having had an appendix operation aged 12 – the doctor’s dog was allowed into the theatre to distract her; or by spending nine weeks in hospital with diphtheria.

During the war she accompanied the family GP on house calls in his horse and trap. Bewley, however, later noted that “there weren’t many inspirational women when I was young – women were conspicuous by their absence”. And, indeed, Bewley’s family tried to discourage her from going into medicine, suggesting dentistry as a more “feminine” pursuit.

Undeterred, Bewley studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. She met her husband, Thomas Bewley, at the city’s Adelaide Hospital when he, then a more experienced houseman, helped fourth-year student Beulah diagnose a heart murmur by whispering in her ear.

They were married in 1955. By now fully qualified and working at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Shadwell, Bewley faced discrimination on the basis of her gender. A senior physician refused even to call Bewley “doctor”, insisting she be called “Mrs” instead. Recalling her frustration, Bewley wrote in her autobiography that “sometimes women had to do more and be better”.

Bewley had five children: four daughters and a son. Her second daughter Sarah was born with Down’s syndrome and congenital heart problems. Sarah was expected to live for just a couple of years and a thoughtless colleague even asked Bewley to make sure he had the child’s heart. With dedicated care, however, Sarah lived to be 44.

Reflecting on her response to learning of Sarah’s condition, Bewley wrote, “In retrospect, life’s a bit like a rubber ball, gradually you bounce back, but you don’t ever bounce back to exactly the same place and you are never the same again.”

After the birth of her youngest child, Bewley returned to work. She was the first woman to graduate with an MSc in Social Medicine from the London School of Hygiene.

In the 1970s she made her MD thesis on smoking in children. All the while, she battled stereotypes. She recalls an instance when she was meeting three male colleagues – junior researchers – at a hotel. The receptionist asked which of the men was Dr Bewley. She responded by lightheartedly telling the men that if they worked hard, they might one day be a doctor just like her.

In the 1980s, Bewley took the issues facing women in medicine to heart and became a member of the executive council of the Medical Women’s Federation, rising to be President in 1986. While she was highlighting the lack of women on the councils of the British Medical Association, the General Medical Council and the Royal Colleges, Bewley was challenged by a friend who asked, “Are you standing for election to the GMC? You should practice what you preach”.

Bewley took up the challenge. She stood for election and was duly voted onto the council. She remained there for 20 years, re-elected four times in a row.

She retired aged 64. She was made a dame in the New Year’s Honours List for 2000, for her services to women doctors. She claimed, however, to be more proud of the honorary law degree she was awarded by her alma mater Trinity, Dublin, for her fundraising work on the college’s behalf.

In retirement, Bewley returned to the piano lessons, which had given her great pleasure as a child, and enjoyed taking opera holidays with her husband Thomas. However, in her eighties, she was forced to slow down by dementia.

It was during this time that her eldest daughter Susan helped Bewley to edit her 2016 autobiography, My Life As a Woman and Doctor.

Susan was the only one of Bewley’s five children to follow in her mother’s footsteps, becoming a consultant obstetrician.

“Mum didn’t let obstacles get in her way,” Susan told the Belfast Telegraph in an interview about the book. “She just sailed through them. She was a real pioneer in her field.”

Reviewing her long and illustrious career in the last chapter of her memoir, Bewley wrote: “When I look back, I think the most valuable work I did for patients was when I was doing family planning…”

“I would like to see health, housing and social services all together in some unified structure, so that social services knew what health was doing and vice versa. Decisions should be much more regionalised in terms of work and the key focus should be the general practitioner.

She concluded her life story: “I think I’m ready to die. I don’t want to die yet, but eventually. Between here and death, I’d like to be treated with respect. I’m getting that from my family and friends. God is comforting in so many ways. So I’m optimistic.”

Bewley is survived by her husband Thomas, three daughters, a son and a granddaughter. Her funeral service took place on Tuesday at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey.

Dame Beulah Bewley, doctor, born 2 September 1929, died 20 January 2018

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