A short story.
The day was blurred by the thick black smog of London. Not even the rain would wash the soot from the walls of the city or the excrement from the streets. The air could be cut with the knives used by the butchers, factory workers, cooks and surgeons of the city, so unutterably thick was the air. Despite this, the people forged on, walking the streets, driving their cabs and coaches, peddling their goods and services and traversing the soiled, squalid streets.
Martha had laced herself into her very best and smallest red dress, had hidden away her hair under an understated red bonnet and given her good-byes to her mother and sisters. Her folio under her arm and her heart swollen with a sick concoction of excitement and terror, she walked toward her destination, rehearsing what she would say in her mind. Everything she had gone through since she was 17 had led to this murky morning. She counted on herself not to mess up today’s endeavours. Eyes fixed forward, and fingers so tightly clasped on her folio they had turned white, she walked on, dodging the dark puddles and piles of manure. As she finished her internal rehearsal, her mind snapped back to the present as she prepared to cross the busy street.
As she did so, she noticed in front of medical practice was a gaggle of people, all struggling to see something invisible to Martha. Her quick intuition told her that those people were concerned with something or someone on the ground. Her blood ran cold as the winter smog as she realised that the Whitechhapel murderer had not yet been caught. Terror coursed through her body and her breath caught in her chest, yet inexplicably she found herself walking briskly toward the commotion. Against her better judgment she walked faster and broke into a run, lifting her heavy red skirt with her free hand. Martha was not very tall and her voice, which sounded hoarse, fought to crack the babble of concerned people. She pushed her way through the bodies to the clearing in the centre of the gathering and the sight that met her eyes brought relief to her heart and warmth to her blood.
No, the Whitechapel murderer had not branched out, but rather a woman had been rendered unconscious outside what Martha hoped would become her new workplace. A man, presumably a relative or husband, had the ladies cold hand clasped in both of his and was visibly shaken. He looked up as Martha entered the centre of the gathering and dropped her folio.
“Is she dead?” “What happened?” “She’ll catch her death out here doctor!” Martha was hearing a disconnected string of questions being asked in earnest by the bewildered crowd of the clearly taken aback doctor.
Martha’s eyes roved over the faces of the people gathered outside the clinic on the cold morning, the face of the man at the woman’s side and the woman herself, lying awkwardly as if she had fallen unexpectedly, and her hat being waved in her face by another man who had placed his medical bag at his side. Martha searched her face, peaceful and alarmingly pallid, dark circles around her eyes, a slight bluish tint to the skin around her mouth, her chest rising only so slightly it went unnoticed by those standing around. Martha’s mind raced through the data she’d gathered so far. She was morbidly intrigued.
“What happened here?” Martha suddenly spoke. Surprising even herself. The man waving the hat looked up and dropped it in surprise. He recovered himself but the other man on the lady’s other side spoke.
“I was walking my wife home from her mother’s, as we’d had a row during the night, and she complained she was about to swoon. I caught her. She hasn’t woken since, we’d been here rather a long time when a kindly gent entered the clinic and brought the doctor. She still won’t wake.” The man’s voice cracked as he fought to hold his nerve. He stroked his wife’s hair back from her icy face. The doctor looked at Martha accusingly. Martha met his gaze and asked of him his story. Taken aback as he was by Martha’s blunt questioning, the doctor recounted his version of events.
“A man knocked on the office door, begging my presence outside where someone had been taken ill. I grabbed my bag and was greeted with the scene you now see mam.” The doctor finished his story and drew breath to ask of Martha her business. Martha cut across him.
“How long ago were you called upon sir?” Asked Martha.
“All of around ten minutes mam.” The doctor replied. His attention returned to his patient.
“Name, pulse and age?” Chimed in Martha, causing the doctor to look round and the husband to frown at her.
The doctor’s fingers found the woman’s carotid artery under her high collar and palpated gingerly, a frown creasing his brow.
“Blair Rose.” snapped her husband at Martha, his tone suggestive of disdain at what he perceived as impertinence.
“Oh loosen the dress will you!” Martha broke with respect as her frustration rose.
“Miss! respects must still be upheld; surely Blair Rose’s husband wouldn’t wish such an intrusion on her modesty!” bristled the doctor dismissively as he continued to palpate her neck and wrists over her extremely tight dress.
“Mrss Rose is breathing doctor, it is visible above her corset. Therefore, it stands to reason she would have a pulse. Her problem is three-fold. it is this suffocating congregation of nosy people, the apparent lack of initiative of her doctor and the restrictive and equally suffocating and stifling effect of her corset. I wrote my dissertation on such a phenomenon. The bluish hue to her lips confirms my diagnosis, her corset and dress must be loosened so she can breath. Her life depends on it!” Martha said, stepping forward and proceeding to unlace the front of the dress. The laces were blessedly down the front of her corset, allowing Martha to pry the clumsily done knot at the top loose and the many succeeding laces in turn.
Her heart was racing, if her diagnosis was indeed true, she knew that the lack of action by the doctor may cost her life. There were cries of protest and outrage from the crowd. “Someone call a constable!” someone bristled indignantly. Mr Rose, still clasping her hand, watched Martha work, appearing stunned into silence. The doctor too appearing to oscillate between outrage and amazement.
Martha reached the third lace down the front of the dress and saw Mrs Rose’s breathing deepen. She slid her fingers down her high collar and palpated her carotid pulse. It bounded under her fingers, too fast for her to count but present. The doctor appeared to recover his nerve. He raised his voice addressing the congregation, “Off with the lot of you now, give the lady some space to breathe for pitties sake!” He dispersed the gathering with his booming voice and authority.
“Mr Rose, you, I am afraid have saved the day. Your wife will be right as rain in a tick. I have one question for you, do you have any household staff in your residence?” Asked Martha now that the street was back to its normal business and bustle. Mr Rose nodded, gathering himself. “You must tell your wife’s hand maid to loosen her corset from hence fourth. It’s imperative for her continued health.”.
The doctor chimed in, his indignation had returned in full force. “Excuse me Miss, may I ask you now, what exactly qualifies you to take over the care of my patient?” He asked from behind Martha. Mr Rose looked up at him, his expression blank. Martha took a deep breath, stealing herself for the inevitable interrogation. Martha had been fighting against such expectations and restrictions since she was young. She stood up, watched the face of the doctor’s patient regain colour and her chest continue to rise and fall under the loosened laces. She turned to face the doctor. Knowing the present situation called for her diplomacy and grace, she couldn’t begin to muster it in the face of such unjust rejection of skill and knowledge. The doctor looked her up and down, “Might I add miss, it is truly ill fitting of a woman such as yourself to get involved in a matter as this. You didn’t study as I and my father before me did to serve humanity as doctors who are trusted. What qualifies you to enact such unenlightened and blasphemous treatments for a simple matter of hysteria.” As the doctor spoke to Martha, the volume of his voice grew. She wanted to interrupt to correct his flawed logic but knew better as the florid quality of his cheeks and the small haemorrhages braking in the whites of his eyes as he shouted at her were suggested a history of drink and poor habits She new intuitively that her accuser wasn’t a well man, and reasoning with him would prove a waste of her energy. Martha instead waited for him to finish before speaking.
“Doctor…” She addressed him once he took a breath.
“Morris. Doctor Francis James Morris the second.” The doctor corrected her with an air of satisfaction.
“Well, Doctor Morris, when I was a medical student such as you yourself and your father before you have been, we were taught too that the woman’s body has its flaws, predisposing ladies to fits of swooning. If you take a moment to really think about such an assumption and its implications, you too will realise that all things considered, it must be false.” She paused to observe Mrs Rose who still hadn’t come around but now looked nicely perfused, her hair being stroked by her worried husband. Martha turned her attention back to Doctor Morris.
“I went to the University of Edinburgh, studied a degree of medicine, scoring distinctions, and earned the respect and trust of the outpatients in my clerkship. I have just saved the life of one of your patients and am here to answer your clinics advert. I have in the folder lying by your patients side my credentials and references.” She took a breath, careful to remain upright and hold Dr Morris’ gaze. The Doctor held hers. “I’m Martha Hiddleston, MD.” She finished.
At that moment, another smartly dressed man entered the street from the clinic, saw the semiconscious female and the developing confrontation beside her and darted to her side.
“Dr Morris, what on blazes had you been doing?” He addressed his fellow indignantly. His eyes roving over the woman’s body. He knelt by her side and pulled back an eyelid, clasped her hand and carefully palpated her wrist. “Why is Mrs Rose in such a state. Why haven’t you brought her inside Morris?” Morris looked sheepish suddenly. Martha joined him at the patient’s side as her eyes flickered open and fixed on the new doctor’s face, darted to Martha’s, and then finding her husbands.
“It’s alright dear, it’s all right. You fainted, this is Doctors Wearington and Morris. What say we get you inside and warm.” Mr Rose said, clearly ever the astutely loving spouse.
Martha put a hand to his and halted him. “Mrs Rose, my name is Martha, how do you feel? I am sorry for the loosened laces mam, it was necessary to save your life. If you feel up to it, it would be prudent to retire indoors and recuperate.” Martha advised Mrs Rose.
“This true, love?” She asked her husband.” He nodded, his eyes darting to meet Martha’s fleetingly, as though unsure who to believe.
“Get her inside, by the fire, Mrs Gary will bring you some tea and I will see to your recovery.” Doctor Wearington assured the couple. Mr Rose helped his wife to her feet gingerly and they entered the clinic, him supporting his wife to walk. Martha stood up and extended a hand to the newcomer.
“Doctor Wearington? Martha Hiddleston MD. Apologies for my tardiness, I sent a telegram ahead of time as I am answering your advert in The Times. I trust I am not too late.” Martha had regained her confidence, remembering the conversation she had rehearsed on her way. Dr Wearington shook her hand and smiled widely.
“Yes, I did receive it, unfortunately I have not yet informed my staff of your arrival. Good morning, Dr Morris, introducing your potential fellow doctor should she prevail in the interview.” Wearington motioned to the pair of them to enter the clinic and Morris gave way to Martha politely.
Martha obliged after retrieving her folio from the street and entered the warm clinic hall, doffing her shawl and hanging it on the hook by the door. She followed Wearington through the hall to his office door.
“Doctor Morris, your patient is in the sitting room, no doubt she will be cold and very shaken, do what you can for her, see that she’s discharged safely.” He addressed Morris who nodded and proceeded through an archway to his right. Wearington opened his door and stood aside. Martha nodded and entered, seating herself across from his desk. He settled behind his desk and fixed his piercing eyes on Martha, fingers together as if channelling Sherlock Holmes. Martha felt her nerves bubble in the pit of her stomach and took a deep breath.
“You said in your telegram you are an Edinburgh graduate.” He addressed her. He nodded, feeling her nerves calm.
The interview continued, Wearington searching her educational history for authenticity, skill and experience. Martha couldn’t tell whether her interviewer approved of her or not. Wearington leaned back in his chair, at this point holding her folio in front of him. He placed it on his desk and took a breath. “Doctor Hiddleston, so far I am prepared to offer you a position here on probation, however, we must address the preceding events on our doorstep.” Martha’s breath caught in her chest again as she prepared to be rebuked.
“The patient was unconscious, there are two conflicting diagnoses, yours and Morris’. Martha drew breath and prepared to defend her decision.
“My diagnosis was based on several pieces of data I gathered from observing the scene and the patient. I watched her try to breathe, saw the bluish tint to her lips and observed the high collar and tight bodice of her dress. I concluded that in the absence of all other possibilities, all of which were unlikely, she must be suffering from hypoxia, and since this puts her life in immediate danger, it’s reasonable to then conclude that even if I was wrong, she must be treated as such. Since hysteria is undergoing review in the medical community as a reasonable diagnosis involving swooning fits, it still doesn’t fit with my other observations. Ergo, I must act. Mind, I did apologise personally to Mr Rose for what must have been an affront to his wife’s privacy. It was, however essential that I allow her to breathe. I hence decided to loosen her corset. This was when Doctor Morris became distressed. He appeared to question my ability to make such a decision. I realise I am one of very few women in this field…” Wearington raised a finger. Martha paused.
“Doctor Morris is a good doctor, having been with us for many years. I did hear you cite some new developments in the care of hysteria. I have been fortunate to be privy to this research and concur with the findings. Unfortunately, that makes just two of us so far. Doctor Morris must be forgiven his prejudices.”
“Doctor Morris’ concern was with my suitability to practice because of my sex, as well as my actions this morning. I have to stand by them despite his protests however.” Martha replied.
Doctor Hiddleston, Doctor Morris was wrong in his rejection of your expertise, no doubt. However, this must not prevent you two from working together. I will be having words with him and personally seeing to his patient’s well-being. I should like to create a report, to send in a letter to the British Medical Association, recounting your treatment of the patient and its effects. It is possible that such a letter, if published, could change the current views of the medical community regarding hysteria.” He finished with a smile at Martha’s obvious incredulity and delight.
“Please call me Mark.” He said.
“Mark, I find myself at present, unable to thank you enough. Of course, I consent to your report.” She said. “It is a true honour.” She added.
Mark broke his facade of detachment and smiled at Martha.
“Welcome aboard Doctor Hiddleston.” He stood, and Martha followed suit, struggling to contain her joy. They shook hands.
They walked together to the sitting room, where Mrs Rose was seated, now recovered and cradling a cup of tea. Her husband was stood by the window, he looked round at their appearance. Mark approached Mrs Rose. Martha held Mr Rose’ gaze. He approached her and shook her hand.
“Thank you miss, for helping Blair, I apologise for protesting.” said Mr Rose, drawing breath to continue speaking.
“Don’t mention it Mr Rose, it was no trouble at all. If you will be sure to follow my advice, I think you’ll find your wife’s swooning will cease in response.” Martha followed this with a nod and a smile and joined Mark at Mrs Rose’ side.
It took much of her practice in London for many minds to be changed, not only regarding the treatment and care of hysteria as it stood then as a valid diagnosis, but also to Martha’s efficacy as a female doctor in London. Many couldn’t be persuaded and suffered in consequence. Many times, Martha’s advice fell on the collective deaf ears of the city as her work proliferated in partnership with Mark Wearington. Martha continued, not just because she was persistent, and wasn’t about to let her sex, though it shouldn’t be relevant at all to her career, stand in her way, but because she loved her work so holistically and completely. She believed there was a need to forge on and to serve her fellow human beings despite the prejudices of the time.