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Struggle of Female Physicians Focus of Exhibition

Today more than half of Finland’s doctors aged under 40 are women. A new exhibition at Helsinki University Museum, Hameiden hidastamat, or Held Back by Skirts in English, details the extraordinary careers of seven women who blazed a trail for today’s female medical students and physicians.

Ylilääkäri Zaida Eriksson-Lihr (toinen vas.) ja lapsipotilaita Allergiasairaalassa Lauttasaaressa noin vuonna 1950. Image: Iho- ja allergiasairaalan kokoelma

It was not always so easy for women to enter the profession. The first women physicians only received licence to practice in Finland towards the end of the 19th century.

One of the doctors in the exhibition is Rosina Heikel, who gained her licence to practice medicine in 1878. As a young woman, Heikel wanted to study medicine, but it was forbidden for women in those days. Instead she travelled to Stockholm to study physiotherapy. On her return to Finland she studied midwifery after she was again refused permission to study medicine.

At that time midwifery was regarded as an almost indecent occupation. For a decent, educated women to take up the profession was unheard of at that time, according to museum worker Henna Sinisalo.

With the support of her brother Alfred, who was also a doctor, she was eventually admitted to Helsinki University to study medicine. Although she never qualified, she was granted a limited licence to practice medicine for women and children.

Women pioneer TB and allergy treatments

Another doctor featured in the exhibition is Göta Tingvald-Hannikainen, who made a big contribution to student health when she in 1931 suggested that students should undergo Tuberculosis tests. Hannikainen suspected that students’ party lifestyles were concealing incidences of TB, and the tests discovered she was right—2.5 percent of those tested showed signs of consumption.

Zaida Eriksson-Lihr pioneered the study and treatment of allergies in Finland in the 1920s. She spent one and a half years researching allergic rashes in the United States, and on her return she became known as the “mother of allergies.” This did not bring her universal acclaim, however, as many Finns did not want to believe allergies were a medical condition and blamed her for bringing them to prominence.

The exhibition at Helsinki University Museum runs until August 14. The museum is open Tue–Fri 11am–5pm. Sat–Sun 11am–4pm. Free admission.

Sources: YLE

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