(A Vickery Drysdale / A Drysdale Vickery)
Physician, pharmacist, feminist.
1844 – 12 January 1929
A Tribute by Lesley A Hall
Pioneer in the struggle for women’s medical education, Secularist, progressive thinker on sexuality, campaigner for contraceptive knowledge, suffragette.
Alice Vickery’s energies were spent largely in activism, medical practice and public speaking. Her childhood was spent in Devon where the family were farmers but, by the 1860s, her parents had moved to Peckham, South London where her father worked as a piano-maker and organ-builder. This move advanced the family’s social status to the artisan respectable working/lower middle class. This is suggested by Alice’s employment as a pupil-teacher in a school in nearby Camberwell, almost certainly the William Ellis Endowed School. Ellis was a brilliant educationalist influenced by George Birkbeck and his schools were run on enlightened and Secularist principles.
The expansion of girls’ schools increased opportunities for teaching as a viable career for aspirational women but Alice Vickery had wider ambitions. She was also already committed to Secularism. Being openly opposed to religion at this period meant encountering formal barriers as well as social disapproval. Nevertheless, Vickery was a lifelong Secularist and a member of the Women’s Group of the Ethical Movement. Even within these freethought circles she met resistance to the Malthusian doctrines she advocated.
In 1864 a Ladies Medical College was established in Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury. Its aim was to offer women facilities to study midwifery equivalent to those in male medical schools. It wished to promote the employment of ‘superior’ women in midwifery and the treatment of diseases of women and children. This initiative became embroiled in medical politics; doctors were threatened by the prospect of competition from trained female midwives rather than un-professionalised women who had learned by experience.
In 1869, Vickery entered the Ladies Medical College and did well in the examinations. She was being trained. However, this training would not lead to full medical qualification. Vickery obtained her certificate in midwifery in 1873. She added to her portfolio of medical skills by registering with the British Pharmaceutical Society when it began admitting women to courses and examinations at its school in Bloomsbury Square. In 1873 she graduated and was allowed to call herself ‘chemist and druggist’. These qualifications were steps on the road to becoming a doctor. In the same year Vickery went to the University of Paris, which admitted women students, to study medicine. Foreign medical degrees were not accepted by the General Medical Council for registration to practise in Britain but some individuals did so in an unregistered capacity. The London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW) opened in 1874. Vickery registered but did not enter as a student for several years, while continuing her studies in Paris.
In 1876 a Medical Act was passed permitting existing medical corporations to grant licenses to practise to qualified women. The first body to take advantage of this Act was the King and Queens’ College of Physicians in Ireland (KQCPI). Vickery returned to England in 1877 to submit her qualifications in midwifery and pharmacy and evidence of hospital clinical practice in Paris (she had not taken the French degree). However, these did not prove acceptable to the KQCPI. She therefore took up her place at the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW).
Vickery’s political and personal lives were interconnected. She formed a free union with fellow-Secularist Charles Robert Drysdale, a Malthusian doctor and supporter of women’s equality. They had two children. To avoid social stigma they did not live together openly for many years. Eventually they let it be supposed that they were married but there is no evidence that there was ever a wedding ceremony. Like many free-thinkers, Vickery and Drysdale critiqued the existing marriage laws. In the 1890s the couple became associated with the Legitimation League. This campaigned for the rights of the illegitimate and engaged with wider debates about sexuality.
Vickery’s public engagements demonstrated her political commitments. When her fellow-Secularists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were put on trial for republishing ‘a dirty, filthy book’: the American Charles Knowlton’s birth control tract, Fruits of Philosophy, Vickery testified as a defence witness. She endorsed Bradlaugh and Besant’s right to publish and said that the book would corrupt nobody. This move could have affected her acceptance at the LSMW but the trial occurred while the school was closed which may have been the reason why it escaped the School’s attention.
Charles Robert Drysdale became President and Vickery a Vice-President of the newly-formed Malthusian League, which promoted population control. This alarmed the Executive Council of the LSMW. Some feared that this association would ruin the School. Vickery agreed to curtail her propagandist activities until qualification. (There is evidence that, in spite of this desire to keep the LSMW publicly distant from the issue of contraception, Garrett Anderson herself was prepared to advocate it in private practice.)
Vickery finally obtained the Licentiate of the KQCPI in 1880 at the age of 36, eleven years after she had set out to become a doctor. She immediately undertook medical practice. She also lectured on Malthusianism. Her argument was that birth control was an essential element for the emancipation of women, rather than an issue of population and economics. While most of her published writing consists of transcripts of her lectures in The Malthusian, the League’s journal, she also produced a book on The Most Common of the Diseases of Children (London: H. Renshaw, 1896), and a translation of the Marquis de Condorcet’s 1789 First Essay on the Political Rights of Women (with her own preface and remarks) (Letchworth: Garden City Press, c.1910).
Once qualified as a doctor, Vickery could devote some of her energies to other women’s issues of the day. She was a supporter of Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which were finally repealed in 1886. During the 1890s Vickery joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, later moving on to the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and then the Women’s Freedom League following its secession from the WSPU in protest at the Pankhurst autocracy. She subscribed generously to the suffrage cause and participated in demonstrations.
Drysdale died in 1907. Vickery continued to practise as a doctor and to work for the Malthusian cause as a propagandist. Around 1908, at the initiative of Anna Martin, a welfare worker in Rotherhithe, London, she privately instructed local women in birth control methods. She also became involved in the growing international birth control movement. She was one of the major supporters of the Walworth Women’s Welfare Centre (birth control clinic) established by the League in South London in 1921, although Vickery does not appear to have been on the clinic staff.
Her interest in wider questions of sex reform and women’s rights continued in later life. Already in her 70s, in 1915 she joined the Bloomsbury-based British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In 1918 she joined the Divorce Law Reform Union, continuing to contest the injustices of the marriage laws. After her move to Brighton in 1923 to be near her elder son and his wife, Vickery became an active president of the local branch of the Women’s Freedom League, which she addressed a few days before her death from pneumonia on 29 January 1929. Vickery had to struggle against many obstacles but she impressively continued to work throughout her life for the advancement of women’s rights in medicine, marriage, sexuality and citizenship.
Lesley A. Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, is a Wellcome Library Research Fellow and Honorary Associate Professor, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London. She is now retired from her post as an archivist at the Wellcome, where during a period of over thirty years she had a significant role in acquiring and cataloguing its strong holdings on birth control and abortion. She has published extensively on questions of gender and sexuality in the UK from the nineteenth century onwards. Her website is www.lesleyahall.net, her blog is lesleyahall.blogspot.co.uk, and she tweets as @erinacean.
Her short review of J Miriam Benn’s exhaustive study of the Drysdale-Vickery families and their activism, Predicaments of Love (1992), which is recommended further reading.
Of possible related interest are her contributions to the Victorian Web: Pregnancy and Childbirth in the Age of Victoria: Abortion and Birth Control, and a discussion of the Bradlaugh/Besant case in her chapter on ‘The Afterlives of Victorian Scandals’, in Brenda Ayres, Sarah E. Maier (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Victorian Scandals in Literature and Culture (2023).
First British woman to qualify as a chemist and pharmacist.
1869 Studied midwifery at Ladies’ Medical College.
Some Key Achievements and Interests
1873 Obtained midwifery certificate from the Obstetrical Society and registered with the British Pharmaceutical Society – through which she could attend courses and take examinations although she could not become a member.
18 June 1873 Passed Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s exam becoming first qualified female Chemist and Druggist.
1873 Studied medicine in Paris as women then not allowed to attend medical school in England. Returned to the UK in 1877 and entered the London School of Medicine for Women to complete her training. The King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland had refused to license her not recognising her qualifications.
Member of Malthusian League, founded to promote birth control, – though withdrew temporarily 1877-1880 when London School of Medicine disapproved of her – in 1907 became President of the Society.
1880 Obtained the medical qualification she needed from the London School of Medicine for Women to be licensed by the Kings and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland becoming one of five women who qualified as physicians.
Was an outspoken supporter of birth control – a pioneer advisor on contraception (She testified at the trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh who were arrested in 1877 for publishing the book The Fruits of Philosophy on contraception. See Annie Besant.)
“In our midst are women held in the bonds of slave-marriage, upon whom unregulated maternity inflicts its intolerable burden of excessive breeding, with its drain upon maternal vitality, and leading to the birth of defectives and degenerates and to persistent lowering of the racial physique.” .Dr. Alice Drysdale Vickery.
Actively opposed the Contagious Diseases Acts, campaigned for reform of the marriage laws, resisted the payment of her rates, protested against women being illegible to stand for Parliament, demonstrated against the repeal of Regulation 40D (which allowed women to be imprisoned for the transmission of VD to a member of the forces.
1890s Involved in the Legitimation League campaigning for the legitimation of illegitimate children.
1890s Wrote for the feminist periodical Shafts.
Was an active member of National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL) and local groups.
In the 1870s could not train and qualify in medicine in England.
Excluded from membership of the British Pharmaceutical Society as a woman (women finally accepted 1879 when Isabella Clarke and Rose Minshull were elected the first women members).
She believed that marriage was ‘legal prostitution’ so did not marry partner Charles Robert Drysdale. Others assumed they were married or their careers may well have been adversely affected.
Anna Martin and many colleagues connected to her professional life and campaigning.