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BMJ. 2007 July 7; 335(7609): 51.
PMCID: PMC1910652

Ethel Barrow

On Friday the 9 February 2007 Mrs Ethel Frater (née Barrow) died at the age of 102½. Born in Cheshire, she was the first English woman doctor to gain a fellowship at the Mayo Clinic; she lived and practised medicine in South Africa for 41 years and retired to England, where she became a fellow of the Linnaean Society.

Ethel Barrow was born in Lostock Gralam, Cheshire, on Saturday the 16 July 1904. Her father, William Barrow, who ran a removals and transport business, died five weeks after her birth. Her mother, Martha, a suffragette, did not hesitate to continue running the business and bring up four children in what was then very much a man's world. Ethel's memories of the days before the first world war were, until the last year of her life, clear, and she rejoiced in the fact that she was born an Edwardian. She remembered during the first world war taking the cart horses to the smithy on dark blacked-out winter nights with ice on the roads to have the spikes on their horseshoes sharpened. The beams of the searchlights looking for enemy Zeppelins above the Brunner Mond (now ICI) chemical works lit up the skies. She spoke fondly of stoking the boilers of Sentinel steam wagons with anthracite. During the influenza epidemic as a 14 year old she nursed her whole family, only succumbing in the third wave. Her mother, still bedridden with flu, allowed her to go to the village square when the bells started ringing at 11 o'clock on the 11 November 1918.

Ethel attended Sir John Deane's Grammar School in Northwich, and on the advice of a blind parson to whom she used to read she decided on medicine as a career. She went to Liverpool University, graduating second in her class late in 1925. She was registered as a doctor by the General Medical Council on 25 January 1926.

Employment for young female doctors was still difficult, and most house surgeon jobs were reserved for the ex-servicemen graduating at that time. She and her friend Miriam Roskin found internships at the Women's and Children's Hospital in San Francisco. As a typical hazard of medical practice in those days she caught diphtheria from one of her young charges. The spirit of adventure and the determination that she inherited from her mother was not deterred by the strictures of Prohibition America, and she and Miriam, during their two week vacation, thought nothing of hitchhiking to Mexico and back.

After completing her internship she was accepted as a fellow in pathology and bacteriology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1927. There she met and married Dr Kenneth Frater, an ex-serviceman and the first South African to train at the clinic. In doing so they broke the strict rule against marriage for all Mayo trainees at that time.

In 1928, when Kenneth had completed his surgical fellowship, they returned to South Africa. For the next 37 years she was active in the health care of the poor in Cape Town. At the same time she embraced her new country and all it offered. She and three female colleagues in health care drove up to the Limpopo river in 1931, camping at the roadside all the way. In addition she gave birth to two sons.

She realised soon that unplanned pregnancies in young women were a significant problem among the poor of Cape Town. She started in the early 1930s campaigning for instruction in birth control. When she was told by the Protestant churches that she could only advise married women with two children, her inevitable reply was that those were not the patients who needed her help. She obtained a diploma in public health. A third son was born in 1941.

During the years of the second world war she taught microbiology at the University of Cape Town Medical School. She was involved in primitive efforts to produce penicillin locally using cultures of penicillium mould sent out by Alexander Fleming. She always regretted the fact that she was not in England during the war years, and, like so many Cape Town ex-pats, entertained troops on their way via the Cape to their destinies in the Middle and Far East.

Her continued involvement in medicine was accompanied by the birth of her third son. She provided a liberal and multifaceted environment for the development of her sons in which music, art, literature, as well as the sciences and politics were all points for discussion. Twice a week she went to concerts by the Cape Town City Orchestra, driving through the blackout during the war. She always cited the time when the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti broke a string during a concerto and picked up where he left off after its replacement. Throughout this busy time she provided care for her surgeon husband, who had severe rheumatic heart disease. He died in 1950 at the age of 53. She never remarried.

She was on the staff of St Monica's Home, the first training school for non-white midwives in South Africa, and developed a special interest in the examination and care of the newborn, long before neonatology was invented. She was the medical superintendent for nearly two decades and wrote its history. In the postnatal clinic she was able to pursue her lifelong interest in birth control and was one of the first in South Africa to promote contraceptive coils. She was active in the South African Women's Federation and represented South African medical women at the WHO conference in Ghana in 1956. Other conferences were in Nairobi, Brazzaville, and Berlin. She visited maternity units in Uganda comparing her experience with theirs.

She campaigned tirelessly for the rights of women doctors to be paid the same as men for the same activity and for non-white nurses to be paid the same as white nurses in apartheid South Africa. She joined the Black Sash to protest the injustices of the Nationalist government.

She eventually returned to England in 1969. The people she had taught and worked with at St Monica's remained in devoted touch with her for the rest of her life. They all said the same about her; she treated them as equal human beings but demanded in return the highest standards. She got letters and visits from ex-staff till the day she died. A doctor to whom she gave a staff appointment at St Monica's when no other jobs were open to him because of his colour remarked that she was the first person he met who treated him as a doctor and individual on absolutely equal terms.

In London, after a period on the selection board of VSO, she became a volunteer at the Linnean Society. She worked on restoring Linnaeus's personal collection and went on to write an account of the Tea Trade and edit the biographies of the fellows of the society. It pleased her greatly when she herself was awarded an honorary fellowship in her 80s. She lived by herself in her flat on Kensington High Street and used the London buses into her 90s, maintaining vigorous opinions on politics, avidly watching cricket, and reading the BMJ. She survived breaking her hip at 89, as well as other surgical adventures after that.

She had her first flight in a two seater biplane in 1935, took a five day flight to England in an Avro York—the civilian version of the Lancaster bomber—in 1947, and her first supersonic flight in Concorde in 1995.

Inevitably her circle of friends dwindled as she outlived them all. The greatest blow of all was the loss of her second son, Kenneth, in 2000. She is survived by her sons Robert and Charles, seven grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.


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