Biography of Surgeon Agnes Forbes Blackadder
Agnes Forbes Blackadder was one of the most distinguished of a cohort of early medical graduates from Queen Margaret College for Women, University of Glasgow. She was born on 4th December 1875 in Dundee. Her father, Robert, was an architect and civil engineer. When she matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1895, she was 19 and already had a degree, an MA from the University of St Andrews. She left her home at Bellevue, West Ferry, near Dundee, to take up residence at Queen Margaret Hall. These were challenging times for clever, ambitious young women. Queen Margaret College had only just begun to award degrees to women, and its first medical graduate, Dr. Marion Gilchrist had graduated just the year before Agnes arrived. She was in good company, however, and counted Annie McIlroy and Daisy Bennett amongst her contemporaries.
She was a gifted medical student. In addition to taking first prize in Practical Pathology in 1896, she had a string of First Class Certificates in Materia Medica, Surgery, Midwifery, Ophthalmology and Insanity and a Second Class Certificate in Anatomy. Agnes graduated on 21st July 1898. Like her contemporary, Daisy Bennett, she had not finished studying and in 1901 she graduated MD. The same year, at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Forfarshire, she married Thomas Dixon Savill, whose MB (1881) and MD (1882) were from London.
After her marriage her career took her to London, where she became a consultant in Dermatology and Electro-therapeutics. She also gained experience in radiological work, which would prove very useful during the war. In 1904 she became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. In 1907 she had the distinction of being appointed as a consultant to a hospital which was not exclusively for women, St. John's Hospital for Skin Diseases. In addition she was a consultant at the South London Hospital for Women. At the same time as making a successful career for herself in London, she was a respected suffragette. In 1912 she was one of three distinguished doctors (the other two being male surgeons), who conducted an inquiry into the appalling treatment of women hunger strikers in prison and published papers on the subject.
During the First World War Agnes Blackadder, or Savill, had a very important role to play in the Scottish Women's Hospitals. These were set up thanks to the campaigning and fundraising efforts of Elsie Inglis and the Federation of Women's Suffrage Societies. The first unit was set up in the winter of 1914-1915 at Royaumont, about 25 miles from Paris, and more followed in Serbia in January 1915. Agnes, sadly widowed in 1910, went out to France for several work periods, returning to her post in London when she could, usually in the winter when there was a lull in the fighting. Her great contribution was in making the best use of a state-of-the-art x-ray car which they had been given, courtesy of the French General Le Bon. She had an acute appreciation of the dangers and mechanisms of gas gangrene and worked hard to mitigate its effects with prompt diagnosis and treatment. Her studies of the x-ray appearances of the gangrene were pioneering. She trained staff and threw herself into the work so selflessly that in July 1918, during a particularly busy period, it was noted that she looked ill and 'absolutely cavernous'.
Although exhausted, she loved Royaumont, and found beauty within its walls. She had a passion for music and borrowed a pianola from a Paris firm. Both patients and staff benefited from playing it and listening to it in the Refectory. Agnes recognised how powerful an influence music could be, and wrote a book about its importance to well-being, entitled Music, Health and Character. Its publication in 1923 caused a stir and later led to the establishment of the Council for Music in Hospitals.
She returned to London after the war and lived first at 66 Harley Street and later 7 Devonshire Place. While continuing to pursue her own career, she also undertook to edit her husband's textbook, Savill's System of Clinical Medicine, a task she continued to do up to 1942. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, only the sixth woman to receive this honour. Her intellectual interests continued to grow. In 1955 she published Alexander the Great and his Times. She was still seeing patients into her seventies. Agnes Forbes Blackadder died in London on 12th May 1964.
University of Glasgow Registry, Faculty and General Council Records
Eileen Crofton, The Women of Royamount: A Scottish Women's Hospital on the Western Front (East Linton: Tuckwell, 1997)
Obituaries: British Medical Journal Vol 1(2), 1964, p1515; British Journal of Dermatology 76, October 1964
Also see blog post from the Special Collections of the University of St Andrews.