Dr Edith Ara Huntley, 1852-1918, Pioneering woman doctor

Edith Ara Huntley was the older of two daughters of Arabella and Richard Huntley, born at Kings Langley, Hertfordshire in 1852, where their father was then joint owner of a Brewery.

Clarence Cottage, Brunswick Street

Edith lived in Leamington Spa, with her parents and younger sister Eliza from at least 1861 to 1866 (and possibly longer).  At the time of the 1861 Census, they lived at Clarence Cottage in Brunswick Street between one of the town’s early Iron Founders, Thomas Radclyffe, and the Pountney family. Adelaide Pountney was the mysterious “Victorian Lady” whose diary was found in an attic, and published by distant relatives in 1998. The diary has a beautiful tiny illustration of everyday middle class life in the spa town in mid-Victorian times, such as the family’s regular attendance at Church and Adelaide’s charity work.

At the time Edith was growing up, many families employed a resident Governess, but there were also small schools for middle class children all over Leamington. Many single Victorian women with sufficient space and funds, set up their own schools, and charged fees for passing on what they themselves had learned, possibly from their own Governess, – the three Rs, Deportment, Embroidery, Drawing, and often, a foreign language such as French or German.  The local press at the time was full of their advertisements.  Later in the century, many fell on hard times, when the National Schools were introduced, – they had properly qualified teachers and could pass the requisite annual inspections, – and they were free. Edith’s father, Richard Huntley was Treasurer of the Trustees of the Leamington National Schools until at least 1866, but it is more likely, given the family’s social standing, that Edith and her sister attended one of the many nearby private establishments for young ladies.

At all events, Edith was set on becoming a doctor, possibly because it is thought that one member of her family was an invalid. She may also have been aware of the tragedy which befell the Pountneys, half of whom died in a typhoid outbreak in Munich, where their father, Rev Henry Pountney was taking a sabbatical year. However, both Edith’s parents lived to a good age, her father dying aged 85 in Bromley, Kent in 1899 and her mother aged 79 in 1900.   Edith’s unmarried sister Eliza died in Bristol aged 64 in 1918.

Edith trained at the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians, where a detailed schedule on the training of its licentiate candidates was maintained, and the London School for Medicine for Women. In 1882, Edith sat the College of Preceptor’s examination for entry to the London School for Medicine for Women, (see image, left) and was awarded a prize, – the Illustrated London News of that year recorded that “at the London School for Medicine for Women the entrance scholarship, value £30, (in the region of £3,400 today) has been awarded to Miss Edith Ara Huntley.” This was not a huge sum, given that fees at the Royal Free Hospital in 1877 for women medical students were as much as £400 per year for clinical instruction, and a further £315 p.a. as a contribution to the general funds of the hospital, but it represented a small victory in the struggle for acceptance of women practitioners in medicine.  The LSMW had opened in 1874 with twelve students. They faced endless difficulties, – no examining board would admit women, and no hospital would offer the requisite clinical training, but once the Royal Free Hospital agreed to accept women to the Medical School, the tide began to turn. Fifteen years later, notwithstanding the disproportionate fees charged to women, 143 women students were registered.

Edith also won an essay competition while at the LSMW, on the study and practice of medicine by women.  (The essay was published and is much referred to in recent scholarship on women’s medical education and the role of the Zenana mission movement, set up to educate girls and young women in India, by recruiting trained teachers to go out to India to teach Indian women how to teach, so that they could then further the movement unaided.) Edith then studied in Edinburgh, where the two Royal Colleges, of Physicians and Surgeons, in Edinburgh and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, had joined forces in 1884 to set the same examinations and confer joint qualifications.  In 1888, the colleges petitioned to be allowed to confer medical degrees, alongside the Universities.  This produced a huge outcry, with The Scotsman declaring: ”It would be deeply regretted if, through their action, a degree in medicine should become nothing more than a professional licence.” Edith qualified at Edinburgh on 23 April 1887.

A short time afterwards, Edith Huntley went to India, to Simla, then in 1902, moved to New Zealand, where she built a substantial house and buildings for her new medical practice in Wellington.  (The building, made of wood, to withstand earthquakes, is still standing.) She spent the rest of her life there, earning a well-deserved long-standing reputation for her work. She is still very highly regarded throughout New Zealand.

Alexandra Maternity Hospital_1944

When she died in 1917 Edith left the residue of her estate be spent in “the creation, maintenance, and endowment of an institution for the care and treatment of expectant mothers, the promotion of research into the means of alleviating the conditions of motherhood, and the teaching and training of pupils in midwifery,” to be carried out by the Wellington Ladies’ Christian Association. Her will named a fellow Briton, former nurse Mrs Annie McVicar as one of her two trustees. Annie McVicar was an early member and vice president of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children.  As a trustee of Dr Edith Huntley’s estate from 1919, Mrs McVicar was involved in distributing funds to improve conditions in maternity homes. The Alexandra Maternity Hospital at Newtown was established in 1927 with money from these funds, and Mrs McVicar was on the executive of the Wellington Ladies’ Christian Association, which ran the hospital and adjacent home for friendless women.

Margaret Rushton

Sources: Leamington Courier (BNA online); Census returns, courtesy of The National Archives; 1887 O.S. map (MR);  information supplied by Ms Sally McClean in New Zealand; The Diary of a Victorian Lady, illustrated by Adelaide Pountney, Ludlow, 1998; Wellington Facebook Page.