London’s Notable Women: Lilian Lindsay

Lilian Lindsay, by Kathleen Williams

I have been taking photos of English Heritage’s blue plaques featuring women for quite some time now, meaning to research their lives and form a directory of some nature. So today’s post will be the first of many monthly posts, doing just this. I hope you’ll enjoy finding out more about these many remarkable women!

First up, is Lilian Lindsay (1871-1960), who was the first female dentist to qualify in Britain; note the Britain and not England, as she was forced to move from her home in London to study dentistry in Scotland, as no school in England would accept her. According to the British Dental Association’s very informative profile of her here, she was interviewed for a place at the National Dental Hospital in London on the pavement outside, as the hospital’s director, Henry Weiss, was so concerned that her very presence in the building would form a distraction to male students that he wouldn’t let her in the building. Rejected from her applications to study in England, she went north to Edinburgh, where she was accepted to the city’s dental school, though not without being told by a member of staff there that in doing so, she was taking the bread from a male student’s mouth.

Lilian well and truly proved her detractors wrong through her remarkable capacities as a surgeon and scholar. She won the Wilson Medal for dental surgery and pathology and the medal for materia medica and therapeutics in 1894, and qualified in 1895, becoming the first woman in the UK to do so. She promptly moved back to London, where she established a highly successful dental surgery in Hornsey, North London, and worked for ten years to pay off the bank loan she had taken out to fund her studies.

The bank loan paid off, Lilian married her former university tutor, Robert Lindsay, in 1905. They practised as dentists together in Edinburgh, and were prominent members of the newly established British Dental Association, with Lilian being its first female member. Passionate about her profession, and particularly its history, Lilian became the honorary librarian of the BDA in 1920 when her husband became its secretary. The couple moved into a flat above the BDA’s offices in London’s Russell Square, where Lilian remained after her husband’s death ten years later, and all throughout the Blitz, refusing to leave the library’s precious resources unguarded. Lilian founded the BDA’s library, amassed a world-leading collection on the history of dentistry, and learnt numerous European languages, as well as Old English, to help with her research and translation of historical artefacts. She published a book, A Short History of Dentistry, in 1933, and contributed tens of journal articles to the British Dental Journal, for which she was sub editor for twenty years. She became the first female president of the BDA in 1946.

A leading figure in both the practice and history of dentistry, Lilian was a true pioneer whose perseverance in the face of much resistance to women’s involvement in the world of medicine enabled her to make an enormously valuable and long-lasting contribution to her chosen field. Despite attending Frances Mary Buss’ pioneering North London Collegiate School for Girls as a teenager, Lilian was advised by her teachers to give up any idea of studying dentistry and instead become a teacher – a far more fitting career for a woman. Strong-minded enough to ignore this discouragement, Lilian managed to gain a three year apprenticeship to experience dentistry for herself, and after scraping together enough loans to do so, applied to study dentistry, refusing to give up when she could find no school in England willing to take her. She didn’t allow societal standards, rejection or financial difficulties to stop her from striving to achieve her dreams, and in daring to believe that she could do what no other woman had done before, she made history and paved the way to making dentistry a profession where, in the UK, women are now the majority.

A blue plaque was placed on Lilian’s childhood home in North London in 2013; sadly, a developer illegally demolished the house, and so her plaque was moved to the house where she lived in Russell Square last year, which is right next door to Faber and Faber’s original old offices. Perhaps Lilian and T.S.Eliot used to cross paths! Bloomsbury, where Russell Square is situated, is a treasure trove for blue plaques commemorating women, and I’ll feature another remarkable resident next month.

14 comments

  1. Wonderful theme for a monthly post and I loved reading about this worthy and fascinating woman – sweet portrait, too! If I had one wish it was that you could take a picture of the blue plaques on the buildings, where possible. I always stay near Russell Sq. when in London and would have enjoyed seeing the plaque, and which building it adorned! (Not this year though…let’s hope next.) Regards –

    1. I went back today at lunchtime and took more photos for you Diana – I have added them to the post for you. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, though equally sad that you can’t come and visit for the time being. Next time you come – we MUST meet!

      1. That is so satisfying, Rachel, the perfect final touch – to see the blue plaque, and to give me the opportunity of thinking I recognize the building! 🙂 You must know that you are on the top of my list of most-wanted-to-meet-people when traveling and meeting are once again among the possible earthly pleasures.

  2. This is so interesting. I read a book about the Delaney family, who were African American living in Harlem. Bess Delaney lived to 104 yrs of age and was a dentist in Harlem. She broke new ground also. Interesting post, I look forward to the next one.

  3. Thank you Rachel this is a great theme for an ongoing series and I really look forward to reading more. I’m really missing my trips to wander around London and so your posts are a great treat.

    1. Thanks Frances – I’m glad to hear you like the idea! London is certainly missing its usual buzz without people visiting – I’m sorry you can’t come right now, but here’s hoping it won’t be long!

  4. Rachel, I have just discovered this post. Thank you for the interesting text and the lovely photos!
    And how wonderful to know that this is only the beginning of a new series. You really made my day!

  5. Hearing that crap about “taking the bread from a male student’s mouth” makes me want to throw something against a wall — because women don’t need to make a living???? (Insert angry face gif here). I do love to read about women who were able to pursue professions against the odds, though! And by the way, there are more women than men attending dental schools in the US, so that’s something. I think the pecentage is even higher in the UK!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s