Continuing our theme of ‘Women of St Andrews’, MUSA blogger Laura Gianesi tells us about the extraordinary life of the person behind the well-known name in St Andrews, Agnes Blackadder.
When St Andrews students hear the name Agnes Blackadder, the first – and arguably only – thing that comes to mind is Agnes Blackadder Hall, the undergraduate residence whose designer is rumoured to be a prison architect. Formerly simply called ‘New Hall’, the building was given a new name in 2012 which students chose from a range of influential alumni. However, despite her name being the most popular choice, few people could actually tell you anything about this woman. This is a pity not only because Agnes Blackadder was St Andrews’ first female graduate, and thereby paved the way for our female students today (women constitute more than half of our student body), but also because she led a fascinating life. She did not let herself be hindered by late nineteenth-century misogyny, but strove to satisfy her hunger for knowledge, help those in need, and realise her full intellectual and professional potential.
The Hall bears Agnes Blackadder’s maiden name, for she was still unmarried when she received her Master’s degree from the University of St Andrews on the 29th of March 1895 at the young age of 20. This may sound unbelievable today, but it was not considered extraordinary at a time when academic careers started earlier and a 25-year-old professor was no reason for wonder. Born and raised in Dundee, she moved to Glasgow after receiving her degree from St Andrews and matriculated at Queen Margaret College in order to complete her medical degree. In the year of her graduation, she married physician Thomas Dixon Savill, a man 40 years her senior who died ten years after their marriage, leaving her a childless widow at the age of 35.
After their marriage, the couple moved to London. As she was an extraordinarily dedicated student who won many prizes – such as Glasgow University’s first prize in practical pathology in 1896 – it hardly came as a surprise that Agnes Savill turned out to be a successful physician rather than conforming to the feminine Victorian ideal of ‘the angel in the house’. It was not only the fact that she was a female doctor – which would have been remarkable in itself – which makes her an unconventional and independent personality: she did not take the path within medicine that was considered appropriate for women. Instead of specialising in the so-called ‘feminine’ field of pregnant women’s and children’s health, she became a consultant in dermatology and electro-therapeutics as well as an authority in radiology. And she went even further in her pursuit of equality: being one of the best-qualified female doctors of her age, she did not work in a maternity hospital, where male competitors would be scarce, but at St John’s Hospital alongside male colleagues.
Her professional skills and critical thinking were key when she faced what was arguably the most famous task of her life: together with two male surgeons, Agnes Savill examined the situation of suffragettes on hunger strike in London’s prisons in 1912. She came to the conclusion that she had to ‘give the direct negative to the Home Secretary’s assertion that forcible feeding as practised in Her Majesty’s prisons is neither dangerous nor painful’. Instead, she found clear words in describing the practice as a ‘severe physical and mental torture’, which ‘could no longer be carried out in prisons of the twentieth century’.
Savill followed her fearlessness not only in social matters but even during the First World War. She did not shy away from the conflict but became a radiographer in the first unit of female physicians and nurses in French Royaumont. Not only her medical skills, but also her love for music helped to carry her colleagues, patients and herself through these hard times. She borrowed a piano from Paris, on which staff as well as recovering soldiers played regularly as if to combat the horrors of war with the beauty of art.
After the War, she returned to London, where she wrote a treatise on Music, Health and Character, which led to the establishment of the Council for Music in Hospitals. Also, she edited her husband’s System of Clinical Medicine, published a historical monography on Alexander the Great, and continued to see patients well into her seventies. Her truly inspiring and eventful life came to an end in 1964, but her name has not been forgotten.
by Laura Gianesi