In Practice

Handmaidens and pioneers: Three female anaesthetists and their contribution to anaesthesia in South Africa

C Gordon, P C Gordon


The period during and after World War II saw enormous changes in the practice and status of anaesthesia, as well as in female participation. This article offers an account of three South African (SA) women who trained in anaesthetics before and during the War and participated in these changes. By the mid-1960s, they presided over the three independent anaesthetic departments at Johannesburg’s three main teaching hospitals, teaching generations of junior doctors. The first woman to register as a specialist anaesthetist in SA, Miriam (Mollie) Barlow, broke the glass ceiling in her own career by lobbying for the professional rights of medical women, although working within the constraints of the medical and political establishment. She also contributed to important SA research on malignant hyperthermia. Hilde Ginsberg collaborated with Barlow in the 1950s, reducing intraoperative and perioperative mortality at Coronation Hospital, and fought for key interventions in anaesthetic practice and policy through the South African Society of Anaesthetists (SASA), becoming its most long-serving and honoured female member. Kathleen Barbara Vetten’s exemplary career in academic medicine, including pioneering animal research (developing anaesthetic techniques for open-heart surgery in dogs and protocols for liver transplantation in primates) and a successful operation to separate craniopagus twins, shows both the achievement of and limits to female achievement at the end of this period. This article also offers a short account of factors that hindered black women from entering anaesthesia training, contributing to this history before the 1990s.

Authors' affiliations

C Gordon, School of Language, Literature and Media, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

P C Gordon, Department of Anaesthesia, University of Cape Town; and Nagin Parbhoo History of Anaesthesia Museum, Cape Town, South Africa

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History of anaesthesia; Women in medicine; Apartheid in medicine; Veterinary anaesthesia; Medical associations; South Africa

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2020;110(11):1088-1092. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2020.v110i11.14588

Article History

Date submitted: 2020-10-28
Date published: 2020-10-28

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