‘Women deserve the most complete freedom’, top doctor tells medical graduands

University’s head of anatomy Jean Calleja Agius honours women doctors in speech to medical graduands

Prof. Jean Calleja Agius
Prof. Jean Calleja Agius

The University of Malta’s head of anatomy paid a fantastic tribute to women doctors and medical school graduands who this week started their career as fully-fledged doctors, calling on her students to “reach back and help others”. 

“Certainly women, like men, deserve the most complete freedom to take their true place in life, whatever it may be,” embryologist Prof Jean Calleja Agius told graduands of the University of Malta. 

In paying tribute to Dr Blanche Huber, Malta’s first recorded female medical student who graduated as a doctor in 1925, Prof. Agius said much had been done since then. “The University has, without doubt, contributed enormously to the enhancement of the perception of women in the workplace by providing opportunities for professional qualification, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.” 

She told medical students that their role as doctors was “also to reach back and help others get there too, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion, or any other perceived difference.” 

“So respect everyone: yourselves, your patients and your colleagues, senior and junior. Know that life can sometimes be unfair. But if you have faith in yourselves, and never give up, then the next generations that follow will live in a world far better than the one we have today.” 

Agius said she enrolled in medicine back in 1994 to become a female gynaecologist, having witnessed her mother having to see a male gynaecologist when she needed emergency surgery. “I achieved my aim, and I want to shape you towards being better doctors, for a better society,” she told the doctors who started their studies under her headship of the Department of Anatomy.   

“You are all extra special to me! Seeing you graduate gives me the similar rush of adrenaline of when I performed my first Caesarean section and held the vernix-covered neonate in my hands as I presented him to his parents, or when three days after an intracytoplasmic sperm injection, I looked down the microscope to see a perfect eight-cell embryo, who nine months later became the first IVF baby girl born at Mater Dei Hospital. 

“You know that you are witnessing something incredible and time somehow stands still for a moment, and as you wonder in awe, you realise that you are merely an instrument in the hands of someone bigger who has the plan of all our lives and who has gifted us with talents which we have a duty to use for the good of others. And that is the famous art of being a doctor.” 

In  her speech to graduands, Agius also ran a roll-call of women doctors, from Queen Merit-Amon in 2700 BC and Ancient Greece’s Metrodora, to the ban on women from universities after the 12th century, and finally to Elizabeth Blackwell who in 1859, after numerous hurdles became America’s first female doctor, inspired to study medicine by a very ill friend who had been too embarrassed to seek help from a male doctor. “On hearing this ‘shocking’ news, another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson from Suffolk, UK, begged her father to allow her to study medicine, who initially found ‘The whole idea .. so disgusting!’...  

“However, through pluck and courage, Drs Blackwell and Garrett Anderson won the respect of fellow male doctors, patients and the public, helping make medicine, and society, a fairer place.” 

And then onto the 20th century, when Malta played its role in World War I as the ‘Nurse of the Mediterranean’, serving as a springboard for women in medicine. 

“Between August 1916 and July 1917, 82 female medical doctors on the British Medical Register served in the 27 war hospitals in Malta to treat the thousands of wounded soldiers who were being shipped here as casualties from operations in Gallipoli and Salonica. The assistance of lady doctors was very highly appreciated, and they were awarded the Order of the British Empire for services rendered during the war. World War 1 certainly helped to change the world’s view of women and medicine.”

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