Our International Women’s Day blog this year aims to address a gap in the historical record of women in science and medicine, by giving recognition to the little-known story of a pioneering female doctor, Caroline Nompozola, “the first woman of colour from the Union of South Africa to qualify in medicine”. (Children’s Newspaper, Oct 1943)
After some digging about to try and piece together Caroline’s story, it became quite clear that despite not being well-known, her achievements are more than worthy of celebration on International Women’s Day. In fact, when Caroline left South Africa in the 1930s on a journey to study medicine in Scotland, her story was such a deal it was reported in the South African press that,
“before she sailed for Europe she was met at nearly every railway station by teachers, journalists and clergymen who wished her Godspeed”. (The Daily Colonist, July 1938)
Caroline’s Application to Edinburgh
As an archivist, it is always rewarding to come across what first appears to be a routine file, and find its contents to be quite exceptional. In this case, while cataloguing student records of the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges from the 1930s, the top letter of a bundle of papers read: “This is to introduce Miss Caroline Nompozolo, the first Native woman from South Africa to study Medicine”.
The letter was sent in 1937 by the Principal of the University of South Africa, Fort Hare, Cape Province. He was recommending Miss Nompozolo for study in Edinburgh at the School of Medicine based at Surgeons’ Hall, in order that she qualify as a doctor in Britain. Coming from a family of seven, Caroline had been awarded a scholarship, helping her financially to travel to Scotland to pursue a medical degree. The bulk of the file’s correspondence concerns the obstacles Caroline faced in attempting to secure a place at a British medical school. For instance, earlier in 1937, Caroline had applied to study at St. Andrews University, yet encountered a somewhat haughty response to her application from the Scottish University Entrance Board, which stated:
“So far as my information goes, the South African Native College, Fort Hare, Alice is not incorporated with any of the South African Universities and I suppose it to be a kind of High School. In any case we accept no one from South Africa who has not obtained the Matriculation certificate of the Joint Matriculation Board”. (8 June, 1937)
Yet, as revealed in her documentation, Caroline had in fact passed the Joint Matriculation examination, and it was on this basis that John Orr, the Dean of the School of Medicine wrote to Nompozolo to notify her that he would be able to exempt her “from the Preliminary Examination, Pre-Registration Examination and First Professional Examination [to] enable a Medical School to admit you into Second Year”. Thus, Caroline was accepted to study with the Scottish Royal Medical Colleges, which would enable her to qualify and register to practice in Britain.
Women and the School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges
It is possible Caroline had already heard positive reviews of the Scottish School of Medicine in her home town, and she may even have been aware of the important role the extra mural teaching environment in Scotland played in the earlier feminist movement of medical women. In Edinburgh for instance – despite controversy – women had been receiving medical education alongside their male counterparts since the 1870s. On the other hand, Edinburgh University did not admit women as full members of the Faculty of Medicine until 1916. A similar situation prevailed in London medical schools; although admitted during wartime there was a significant decline in numbers of female medical students after the end of World War 1 in light of conservative criticisms, with little improvement until World War 2.
The School of Medicine of the Royal Colleges had garnered an international reputation for its apparent liberal environment for women’s medical education, particularly influenced by feminist pioneers such as Sophia Jex-Blake and Elsie Inglis who both led separate medical teaching schools for women. Such encouragement was strengthened by the appointment of the abovementioned John Orr as Dean of the School of Medicine in 1924. Orr was instrumental in fostering an open-minded egalitarian approach in accepting marginal groups not traditionally accepted, which you can read about here. The Dean had made it his mission to help medical student refugees escaping Nazi Europe by admitting as many as he was able to for study at the School of Medicine. He likewise sought to provide assistance to female students who often encountered obstacles to their education, including African women such as Caroline Nompozolo.
Study in Glasgow
While Caroline was accepted to study for the Scottish TQ, student places in Edinburgh were at capacity for that year, and Orr wrote to his friend, the physician Carstairs Douglas, Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Anderson College in Glasgow. Orr suggested Caroline “secure a place in Anderson College, Glasgow or in St. Mungo’s College, Glasgow”. At Orr’s recommendation, Douglas accepted Caroline Nompozolo to study medicine in Glasgow.
When she arrived in Glasgow in 1938, it would appear that Caroline Nompozolo attracted a great deal of attention and celebration, and not just in her home country. Her story even reached its way to the Goulburn Evning Penny Post in New South Wales. Under the article heading ‘Native girl has a degree’ the newspaper reported that,
“Caroline Nompozolo, a Bantu girl, wants to be a doctor. She recently arrived in Glasgow from South Africa and has begun her studies at the Anderson College of Medicine…Already Caroline has the BSc. In Africa her training in medicine is looked upon as an important event. Through her pioneer work, many African women in the future may become doctors”.
The image above shows Caroline’s entry in Anderson College’s Matriculation Album of 1938. Caroline’s Triple Qualification Schedule held here at RCSEd offers a detailed picture of her progression as a medical student, both in South Africa and Scotland. In Glasgow, it shows that she took extra mural classes in Physiology, Anatomy and Mental Diseases at Anderson College, and Forensic Medicine, Pharmacology and Public Health at St. Mungo’s College. Caroline received clinical training at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary and Western Infirmary, finally qualifying in September 1942.
International Women’s Day and Caroline Nompozolo
What better day to place Caroline Nompozolo in the historical record than International Women’s Day! Unfortunately, apart from snapshots from examination records and contemporary newspaper reports, there seems to be little written about Caroline and it has been tricky to compile a picture of her life and work. More is known about Mary Malahlele, who became the first native woman to qualify in South Africa in 1947, four years after Nompozolo graduated in Britain. The British Journal of Nursing reported Malahlele’s success in July 1948, while also giving a nod to Nompozolo:
“the first African native woman has taken her medical degree at a South African university. She is Dr. Mary Susan Malahlele. (Dr. Caroline Nompozolo, a Xhosa Bantu woman, had previously taken her degree abroad)”.
Yet, Caroline Nompozolo’s success (and likely strength of character) cannot be understated. The League of Coloured Peoples in London wrote of Caroline in their newspaper,
“Ever since she was a girl at school Dr. Caroline wanted to become a doctor, and this fact was regarded as a big joke when she entered College – Healdtown Institute. Thence she went to Fort Hare, now known as the South African Native University College. Here she took the unusual course of studying Science, no other South African woman had ever done so before. Before completing her second year she came to this country, but not before she had blazed a trail in South Africa, and thus by her example encouraged other women to take up science”.
While there are available snippets of information regarding her background in South Africa, application to Edinburgh and her medical studies in Glasgow, her subsequent career remains especially hazy. In September 1943, it was reported that Caroline sought to “qualify herself more fully in women’s and children’s work”. With the advocacy in Britain of the League and High Commissioner for South Africa she received funding from the United Transkeian Territories General Council and the Native Recruiting Corporation “to enable Dr Nompozolo to proceed to Dublin for additional courses in midwifery and children’s diseases”. The League thus announced, “we are very proud…of Dr. Caroline and are expecting to hear great things”.
The Medical Register reveals Caroline Nompozolo was practicing in London from the 1950s. Her obituary records her as a Glastonbury resident at the time of her death in 2008, and interestingly, also notes her as a “retired anaesthetist”. We hope you agree with us that Caroline is worthy of celebration on International Women’s Day, and if you have any further information regarding her career we would love to hear from you!
*With thanks to Dr. Sam Maddra, Archivist, Glasgow University Archive Service
You can also read our previous International Women’s Day blogs: