Celebrating women: The first woman to receive a medical degree from Bristol

To mark the 2018 centenary of the first British women winning the right to vote, we are honouring Bristol women who have changed our institution, and the world. From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these activists, educators and agitators now take their rightful place on the walls of the Wills Memorial building – along with ten of the women in today’s University community to who continue to be inspired by their legacy.

Dr Elizabeth Casson, The first woman to receive a medical degree from the University of Bristol, with Asha Mohammed, undergraduate medical student

“Elizabeth was 30 when she started studying
medicine at Bristol in 1913 – a move thanks in part to her uncle, Sir Isambard Owen, being
the Vice-Chancellor here. She became the first woman to achieve a medical degree from the University when she graduated in 1919.

“The career change proved fortuitous, not just for Elizabeth but for the field of occupational therapy, which she went on to pioneer in the UK. It was during her first job in a hospital that she noticed the benefits of giving patients some voluntary artistic and occupational activities during treatment to help aid their recovery.

“In 1929, having drawn inspiration from a visit to the United States and subsequently borrowing £1,000 from her brother Lewis, she founded Dorset House in Clifton, Bristol, as a residential clinic for women with mental disorders. A year later, she launched the UK’s first school of occupational therapy at the same location. There, she led occupational and artistic therapies for the promotion of psychological wellbeing, including such activities as dance, drama, and countryside excursions.

“The original Dorset House school and treatment facility grew in size, helping around 800 patients between 1929 and 1941. Elizabeth privately financed Dorset House until 1947, after which it became the Elizabeth Casson Trust in 1948.

“As a current medical student, it’s humbling to think we’re following in the footsteps of great medics like Elizabeth, whose drive and tenacity have brought about positive change for future generations.

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The University of Bristol was the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, but our commitment to gender equality reaches far beyond this milestone. The wooden panels of the Great Hall in its Wills Memorial Building have been an all-male domain thanks to hosting portraits of its Vice-Chancellors. But now, thanks to a project specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote, a series of ten portraits redresses the balance and celebrates notable Bristol women who have changed the institution – and, indeed, the world.

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