Margaret Todd (1859-1918): Medical woman and author

Margaret Todd

Margaret Todd (Wikipedia/ Public Domain)

In 1893, the popular periodical The Nineteenth Century featured an article on ‘Medical Women in Fiction’, written by Sophia Jex-Blake, who was well-known as a pioneer in the movement for women in medicine. Her article reviewed a selection of British and American novels published between the 1870s and early 1890s, all of which represented aspiring female practitioners. Jex-Blake examined the way in which they approached what she termed ‘a great social question’. She conceded that portraits of medical women need not be ‘drawn by friendly hands’ but maintained they ‘should be in some sense taken from life’.[1]

She singled out for mention the three-volume novel Mona Maclean, Medical Student (1892), which she considered to be ‘manifestly written from the inside’.[2] The story depicts the medical and romantic adventures of its eponymous young heroine, a student at the London School of Medicine for Women. After she fails her Intermediate Examinations, Mona takes an extended break from her studies, visiting rural Scotland to stay with a distant cousin, who requests that she conceal her identity as a medical student. This ruse proves difficult to sustain when Mona falls for an aspiring medical man, Ralph Dudley. The novel is a female Bildungsroman which sees its heroine undergo various trials before she passes her exams and settles in practice with her new husband, Dudley.[3] In praising the novel, Jex-Blake suggested that its protagonist resembled a ‘genuine medical woman’.[4]

The authenticity was unsurprising. For while the novel was published under the pseudonym Graham Travers, it was written by a female medical student, Margaret Todd. Born in Fife in 1859 to James Cameron Todd (a canon and schoolmaster) and his wife Jeannie McBain, Todd briefly worked as a schoolteacher. She then became one of the first pupils at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women, which Jex-Blake founded in 1886. Although Jex-Blake claimed to be ignorant about the authorship of Mona Maclean – she suggested she did not know whether it was written by a man or a woman – this was disingenuous. By the time the novel was published, the pair had been living together for four years. Jex-Blake is widely considered to have inspired the book, particularly the characterisation of the formidable Dr Alice Bateson. Further, she helped to secure the novel’s publication with Blackwood’s.[5]

Mona Maclean was immensely popular upon its release, reaching 15 editions by 1900. It received largely positive reviews. The Academy endorsed it as ‘one of the freshest and brightest novels of the time’,[6] while The Speaker praised the heroine as a ‘natural lady’ and the book as ‘good and artistic work’.[7] The Athenaeum’s reviewer dwelled on the novel’s ‘obvious blemishes.’ Like other critics, he recognised it as the product of first-time authorship. He also bemoaned that it was ‘a novel with a purpose, and suffers from the drawbacks inherent in works of the proselytizing stamp’. Despite this, he suggested that it showed ‘decided promise, and was in parts exceedingly enjoyable’.[8]


Mona Maclean

Todd’s novel was also well-received by the medical press. This is surprising, given that many journals had been highly critical of the medical-woman movement, as I explore in this blog post. Upon its publication, the Lancet judged it ‘a capital book’ and a ‘well-written, and effectively-told tale’,[9] while the Edinburgh Medical Journal designated it ‘eminently readable’.[10] The Medical Press and Circular was slightly less enthusiastic, suggesting that the plot was rather ‘feeble,’ but it conceded that the book held a certain ‘charm’.[11] The journals commended the book to their readers, the vast majority of whom would have been medical men. None of them suggested it would make a suitable gift for a wife or daughter, though the fact it was reviewed around Christmas may have suggested this to some readers. When the Lancet reviewed the book’s fifteenth edition in 1900, it praised the publishers for bringing out a ‘cheap edition’, thus putting the story ‘within the reach of everyone’.[12]

Long overlooked by literary scholars, Mona Maclean has attracted critical interest in recent decades. Critics working on New Woman or New Girl fiction have considered its treatment of female education, friendship, and sexuality,[13] while those interested in the Victorian medical-woman movement have examined its depiction of medical education and practice.[14] Thus far, scholars have not interrogated its reception by the medical press, as I consider in my thesis.

Following the publication of Mona Maclean, medical journals continued to associate Todd with her debut novel. In 1894, the British Medical Journal reported that three women – including the ‘authoress of Mona Maclean’ – had passed the Conjoint examinations in Scotland.[15] In 1895, the journal summarised Todd’s response to controversial correspondence from Arabella Kenealy (another early medical woman and a eugenicist) about whether doctors should intervene to prevent miscarriages of syphilitic children. It referred to Todd as ‘[t]he Author of Mona Maclean’.[16]

It is fitting that her authorial and medical identities were entwined, for she maintained her interests in both literature and medicine. After taking her MD in Brussels in 1894, she worked as Assistant Medical Officer at the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children, and also penned further novels and short stories. She has also gained recognition among the scientific community for having proposed the word ‘isotope’ to the chemist Frederick Soddy, a family friend (though sources also suggest earlier antecedents). A correspondent from the Royal Institute of Chemistry related the incident to the Lancet in 1957, referring to Todd as ‘a medical woman’ and ‘a novelist’, again asserting her dual identities.[17]

Following Jex-Blake’s retirement at the century’s close, she and Todd moved to a small farm, Windydene, in Rotherfield, where the older woman died in 1912. Six years later, Todd published a biography of her, The Life of Dr Sophia Jex-Blake (1918). It is a painstakingly detailed and hagiographic account of the subject’s life as a pioneer for women’s medical education and practice.[18] The Lancet described the biography as ‘admirable’ and ‘as absorbing as a good novel’ in its review,[19] while the BMJ suggested it was a ‘well-written memorial’ but noted the author had ‘suppress[ed] […] any reference to her share in Miss Jex-Blake's life, on which it would have been interesting to have some light’.[20]

Three months after the biography appeared, Todd herself died. Newspapers reported that she passed away at a nursing home in London, though some have inferred that she committed suicide.[21] When the Lancet and the BMJ announced her decease, they noted her medical career, but both suggested that she was better known as an author.[22] Following her death, the London School of Medicine for Women created a scholarship in her name, thus ensuring her legacy among future generations of medical women.

[1] Sophia Jex-Blake, ‘Medical Women in Fiction’, The Nineteenth Century, 33 (February 1893), 261–72 (pp. 261-2).

[2] Jex-Blake, p. 268.

[3] Margaret Georgina Todd, Mona Maclean, Medical Student, 3 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1892)

[4] Jex-Blake, p. 278.

[5] Kristine Swenson, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005), p. 131.

[6] William Wallace, ‘New Novels’, Academy, 3 December 1892, pp. 504-5 (p. 504).

[7] ‘Fiction’, Speaker, 12 November 1892, pp. 598-9 (p. 599).

[8] ‘Novels of the Week’, Athenaeum, 3 December 1892, pp. 773-5 (p. 774).

[9] ‘Reviews and Notices of Books: Other Seasonable Productions’, Lancet, 17 December 1892, p. 1394.

[10] ‘Review: Mona Maclean’, EMJ, December 1892, pp. 569-70 (p. 570).

[11] ‘Literature: Mona Maclean, Medical Student’, MPC, 19 April 1893, p. 424.

[12] ‘Library Table: Mona Maclean’, Lancet, 9 June 1900, p. 1663.

[13] Ann Heilmann, New Woman Fiction: Women Writing First-Wave Feminism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), p. 29. Charles Ferrall and Anna Jackson, Juvenile Literature and British Society: The Age of Adolescence (New York: Routledge, 2010), pp. 72-6.

[14] Rachel Carr, ‘The “Girton Girl” and the “Lady Doctor”: Women, Higher Education and Medicine in Popular Victorian Fiction by Women’ (unpublished doctoral thesis: King’s College London, 1998). Swenson, Medical Women and Victorian Fiction.

[15] ‘Medical News’, BMJ, 11 August 1894, p. 346.

[16] ‘Correspondence: A Question of Conscience’, BMJ, 5 October 1895, pp. 870-1.

[17] Hugh Nicol, ‘The Word “Isotope”’, Lancet, 29 June 1957, pp. 1358-9.

[18] Todd, The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake (London: Macmillan, 1918).

[19] ‘Reviews and Notices of Books: The Life of Sophia Jex-Blake’, Lancet, 10 August 1918, p. 174.

[20] ‘Reviews: Life of Miss Sophia Jex-Blake’, BMJ, 10 August 1918, pp. 133-4 (p. 133).

[21] Elizabeth L. Ewan and others (eds.), The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p. 184.

[22] [Untitled], Lancet, 7 September 1918, p. 333. ‘The Late Dr Margaret Todd’, BMJ¸ 14 September 1918, p. 299.