“I wanted to do medicine when I was aged 5”: Gertrude Herzfeld (1890-1981), Scotland’s first practising female surgeon

Our International Women’s Day Blog this year celebrates a remarkable surgical pioneer. Gertrude Herzfeld (1890-1981) blazed a trail for women in surgery in the 20th Century, and we are proud to say that not only was she the first woman to take her seat as a Fellow here at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, she was also the first practising female surgeon in Scotland. A skilled and dedicated surgeon who became a leading authority on child surgery, Herzfeld had a distinguished career in gynaecology and paediatrics (particularly in neonatal surgery). She held a number of senior appointments, as well as being a popular lecturer, and also published widely in The Lancet. Gertrude Herzfeld achieved an impressive number of ‘firsts’ and leaves a remarkable legacy.


The daughter of Austrian émigrés, Gertrude Marian Amalia Herzfeld was born in London in 1890, where she was also educated. As a child, Herzfeld claimed in later life, “I wanted to do medicine when I was aged 5”. This was fiercely ambitious for any female in the 1890s, but throughout her teenage years she held onto this aspiration. It was in her third year of training when she firmly decided that surgery was the real career for her. Again, a bold ambition.

Herzfeld as a child, 1892 (RCSEd Archive, GD 53)

Gertrude Herzfeld, 1892 (RCSEd Archive, GD53)

Gertrude qualified from Medical School at the University of Edinburgh in 1914. She would have encountered significant barriers during her undergraduate years when lectures for men and women were separate (women were not admitted on an equal basis at the University until 1916). The obstacles would have intensified when she went on to practice surgery after graduation. For instance, with the lack of remuneration for hospital work in pre-NHS days, in order to practice surgery women had to rely on male colleagues for patient referrals.

After graduation in 1914, Herzfeld served as the first female house surgeon (to Sir Harold Stiles FRCSEd) at the Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children, a position she held until 1917. She continued her journey into surgical practice with brief work at the Royal Army Medical Corps Hospital in Aldershot, followed by an appointment as House Surgeon at Bolton Infirmary from 1917-19. Gertrude was under no illusions regarding these opportunities: “…it was the First World War that gave me my chance”.

Yet, after the War when Gertrude returned to Scotland to settle in Edinburgh, a significant episode occurred in her career -and indeed in the history of women in medicine- when she gained a professional post in direct competition with a male surgeon and another woman.  In 1920, Herzfeld was the first woman to be appointed Honorary Assistant Surgeon at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Sick Children (later becoming Senior Surgeon in 1925). During her tenure at this hospital, Gertrude was one of only a few surgeons that carried out paediatric treatment on inguinal hernia, which was originally developed by Stiles. It was also claimed she once undertook 6 hernia operations in less than an hour.

Edinburgh Royal Hosp for Sick Children 1928 GD 200-4-

Ward 2, Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children, 1928 (RCSEd Archive, GD 200/4/7

At the same time, from 1920, Herzfeld was also surgeon at the Bruntsfield Hospital for women and children, which was staffed entirely by women, remaining there until she retired in 1955. Paediatric surgery (and indeed Herzfeld’s work) encompassed the whole range of plastic, orthopaedic, abdominal and neonatal work, which included the treatment of burns and trauma, and she undertook a wide range of general and gynaecological surgery at Bruntsfield Hospital. With other RCSEd College Fellows, including Stiles, and also Thomas Annandale and Joseph Bell, Herzfeld was instrumental in advancing the idea paediatric surgery could be a full time occupation, and not merely an element of adult surgery. She also took a surgical appointment at Edinburgh Orthopaedic Clinic.

Gertrude Herzfeld passed the Fellowship examination at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1920, the second woman to do so. While women were first admitted as Licentiates from 1892, it was not until 1920 that the College admitted its first female fellow, Alice Mabel Headwards- Hunter (two months before Herzfeld). Unlike Herzfeld, who practised in Scotland, Headwards-Hunter worked abroad and did not ‘take her seat’ at RCSEd).

Gertrude was active in College life, including making donations to Surgeons’ Hall Museums, who currently exhibit some of the specimens she donated in the 1920s. The specimen illustrated below was not in fact related to Herzfeld’s paediatric specialty, and instead it is a gall bladder from a 62 year old woman who had suffered from frequent inflammation of the gall bladder. The gall bladder was removed and Herzfeld preserved it as it was an unusual formation that could be demonstrated to other surgeons and physicians.

GC 10055

Surgeons’ Hall Museum, GC.10055

Gertrude was a popular surgeon, both with her patients, students and the medical community. Known affectionately as “Gertie” to her friends, fellow surgeons and nursing staff, Herzfeld was noted for her compassion, not only towards her patients, particularly children, but also to her students. When Herzfeld died in 1981, Neurosurgeon Francis John Gillingham fondly remembered her:

“Those of us that were privileged to know her in her senior years recognised at once someone who had developed the serenity and wisdom that only comes from a hard-won battle against considerable odds. In these days when almost half of our medical students are women it is hard to imagine the great struggle it was for the very few students who entered the man’s world of medicine in the earlier part of this century”.

In light of early obstacles in a male-dominated profession, Gertrude actively encouraged women to enter the professions of medicine and surgery, and she enthusiastically promoted the cause through her work as President of the Women’s Medical Federation.

She also joined the British Medical Association in 1915 and was Chairman of the Edinburgh Division from 1960-1962. During her long retirement, she kept up wider interests in music and travel and also took up gardening and painting, becoming an Honorary Vice-President of the Scottish Society of Women Artists.

Herzfeld, Gertrude

Here at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh the wonderful portrait (above) of Gertrude Herzfeld hangs proudly. Over the years her achievements have been highlighted in local and national press articles. Edinburgh City Council currently have Gertrude Herzfeld on their ‘Street Name Bank’

We think you will agree that “the woman who dared to be a surgeon”, Gertrude Herzfeld is worthy of celebrating on International Women’s Day!

Herzfeld press cuttings

Here in the Archive at The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh we actively encourage donations of archive material relating to women in medicine and surgery (including modern collections!), so please do get in touch if you wish to enquire further or deposit collection material!

Further reading:

Iain Macintyre and Iain MacLaren, Surgeons’ Lives: Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, An Anthology of College Fellows over 500 Years (2005).

Helen M. Dingwall, A Fmous and Flourishing Society: the History of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (2005).

RCSED Archive, ROCS 8/2, GD53 and GD 100/91.



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