It’s easy to imagine that all Victorian women did was needlepoint until either consumption or childbirth carried them off. That’s not true. Frances Prideaux is an example to us all, as I discovered during research for the Pen and Sword book Women’s Lives in Bristol, 1850-1950, which is due for publication next year.
Frances Helen Prideaux, M.B, B.S. Lond. and Licentiate of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians is a fantastic role model for all women. When she was at the height of her powers in 1885, she was a phenomenon.
At a time when schooling for girls was often seen as a waste of money, Frances had the best possible start in life. She was born into a family living in Clifton, which is an affluent part of Bristol. Bright and inquisitive, her potential was spotted straight away. In an age when women were treated like children and seen as chattels, Frances had the twin benefits of high intelligence and a support network few other women could boast, even today. She sailed through her education getting top grades, and took medical school in her stride.
Frances had the work ethic of Noel Fitzpatrick, TV’s Supervet. She was always busy, and in the rare moments she wasn’t working, she was thinking about work. No job was too difficult for her. As a student, and then Professor Scholar at Queen’s College between 1869-73, she was respected and liked by everyone. In 1884, she gained honours in obstetric medicine, and was placed third in the list of candidates at the examination for Bachelor of Medicine. There’s no doubt she would have gone on to even greater things, but she died at a tragically early age.
|Photo by Frederick Hollyer,
by courtesy Wellcome Library
In October 1885 she was elected House Surgeon to the Paddington Green Hospital, and started work on November 2nd. On Saturday 21st, she woke up with what she thought was only a sore throat. She went into work and insisted on carrying out all her duties as normal, but she obviously wasn’t well. By Monday 23rd, exactly four weeks after she’d started her new job, her condition made one of the senior surgeons at the hospital think she might have diptheria.
Despite her protests, Frances was sent home from work. Where she could have contracted the disease was a mystery, as there were no known cases in the Paddington Green area at the time. These days, vaccination programmes reduce the incidence of diptheria to a few thousand cases per year worldwide, but in 1885 it was widespread. The glands in your neck swell up to a massive size, while a thick grey membrane blocks your throat, making breathing and swallowing almost impossible. Today, sufferers are put in isolation, then given the miracle cures of antibiotics and anti-toxins. In the nineteenth century, those vital drugs didn’t exist.
A team of medical experts did everything they could to save Frances, including a laryngotomy to enable her to breathe. Despite their best care, she died within a week, “after terrible suffering”. It was Advent Sunday, and the day before her final medical exams.
The doctors who tended Frances were devastated, especially as she was fully aware of what was happening almost to the end. Despite barbaric-sounding treatments such applying corrosive lotions to her already inflamed throat, she stayed calm and brave. A glowing obituary was published in the British Medical Journal on 8th December, 1885, and a scholarship in connection with the London School of Medicine founded in her memory.
This is part of a longer piece on Frances which appears in Women’s Lives in Bristol, 1850-1950, to be published in 2018. To find out more, follow this blog using the button above.