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The Mabel FitzGerald Archive, or: An extraordinary woman

Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald was, in many ways, an extraordinary woman. Born in 1872, the youngest child of Richard Purefoy FitzGerald and his wife Henrietta Mary neé Chester, she spent her first 23 years at the family home North Hall in Preston Candover, Hampshire. The family life was very much that of old country gentry:  the father, after his navy and army career, managing land and  participating in county politics, the mother running North Hall and organising the family’s extensive social life, the two sons pursuing navy and academic careers respectively. Mabel, along with her four sisters, was educated at home, and grew up to live the life of a country lady. Her teenage diaries tell of violin classes and country walks, painting and literature, amateur theatre, visits to relatives and family friends, formal dances and many other social events.

Mabel FitzGerald as a young woman

Mabel FitzGerald as a young woman

Against all odds: Medicine!

But Mabel FitzGerald also had an interest in medicine, and generally in science. With her sisters she attended local lectures on nursing and healthcare, read quite widely on the topic, and admired her brother Henry, who went up to study chemistry at Oxford University in 1892.

After both parents died unexpectedly in 1895, the five FitzGerald sisters moved from Preston Candover to live with their grandmother Sarah Anna Elizabeth FitzGerald neé Purefoy Jervoise in Shalstone, Buckinghamshire. Encouraged by both her grandmother, a ‘learned lady’ who corresponded with the poet Robert Browning and other literary and intellectual figures of the time, and the local doctor G.H. De’ath, with whom she went on patient visits and discussed medical topics, Mabel FitzGerald decided on a career in medical science.

In 1896 she moved to Oxford with her sisters and started studying premedical subjects. She did so unofficially, as women were not yet admitted to study for a degree – but soon impressed her tutors with her thoroughness, dedication and critical spirit. She went on to research positions at Oxford in histology (with Gustav Mann) and physiology (with Francis Gotch), and in 1901/1902 worked with Georges Dreyer at the Sate Serum Institute in Copenhagen.

Mabel FitzGerald and Georges Dreyer, Copenhagen State Serum Institute 1901/1902

Mabel FitzGerald and Georges Dreyer, Copenhagen State Serum Institute 1901/1902

From Oxford to Pike’s Peak

From 1905 to 1908 FitzGerald worked in Oxford with J.S. Haldane on the physiology of the respiratory system, and with W. Osler and James Ritchie on bacteriology and pathology. She then travelled to North America on a Rockefeller fellowship to work with H. Naguchi in New York on bacteriology and with A.B. Macallum in Toronto on physiology.

Upon her return to Oxford she was invited by J.S. Haldane to participate in the subsequently celebrated 1911 medical expedition to Pikes Peak, Colorado, to study the effects of altitude on the respiratory system. Whilst the men in the expedition party went up the mountain to set up their laboratory in the summit house, FitzGerald travelled Colorado to measure the long-term effects of altitude on the respiratory systems of the population in the remote mining towns.

Two years later she went to North Carolina to gather data for lower altitudes and compare them with the Colorado results.  Her observations on ‘the changes in breathing  and the blood in various high altitudes’, published 1913 and 1914, are what she became most recognized for.

The Pike's Peak expedition 1911: Haldane, FitzGerald, Schneider, Henderson and Douglas.

The Pikes Peak expedition 1911: Haldane, FitzGerald, Schneider, Henderson and Douglas.

…but Medical School? Yes, as a teacher!

Alongside her extensive lab and field work, Mabel FitzGerald continued to attend lectures and demonstrations and by 1910 had completed at least 900 hours of courses in physiology, histology, pathology and chemistry, along with three years of clinical classes with Osler. Still, when she applied to study medicine at Cornell University Medical College she was rejected for not having the necessary qualifications. By 1915, the time of her second application to medical school, this time at New York, she had attended at least another 800 hours of classes, done years of lab and field work and had published eleven papers – but again, she was rejected (…this time, on the grounds of poor algebra test scores!).

In 1915, FitzGerald moved to Edinburgh to work as a clinical pathologist at the Royal Infirmary. She also applied to medical school in Edinburgh, as it was one of the few in Britain which admitted women. Again, she was rejected as a student – it was considered too much work for her to both attend lectures and fulfil her duties as a clinical pathologist. During her fifteen years in Edinburgh Mabel FitzGerald found her way into Royal College Medical School anyway – as a teacher in practical bacteriology in the 1920s.

Late recognition

In the late 1930s, she retired to Oxford to care for her ageing sisters, who, all unmarried, still lived together in a house in Crick Road. For more than two decades, Mabel FitzGerald was almost forgotten by scientists, until she was ‘rediscovered’ in the course of the centenary celebrations of her mentor Haldane’s birthday in 1960.

But it took until her own hundredth birthday in 1972 before FitzGerald received the academic recognition she deserved for her scientific work. She was finally awarded an honorary M.A. from Oxford University, and she was made a member of the Physiological Society, with her papers being quoted for comment in the 1973 Oxford University examinations.

Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald, M.A., died at the grand old age of 101 in August 1973 in Oxford.

Mabel FitzGerald, M.A., after the degree award ceremony in Oxford 1972

Mabel FitzGerald, M.A., after the degree award ceremony in Oxford, 1972

The FitzGerald Archive at the Bodleian Library

After FitzGerald’s death, her personal and academic papers, along with family papers from her Oxford home in Crick Road, came to the Bodleian Library. Family letters and diaries, personal documents and photographs, academic correspondence and lecture notes, lab books, patient cases and research data, working papers for publications and articles – the history of a Hampshire family and the biography of an extraordinary scientist condensed to  40 boxes.

FitzGerald Archive boxes

Full to the brim with history: 20 of the 40 FitzGerald boxes

The archive is particularly rich in documentation of FitzGerald’s time of ‘unofficial learning’ in Oxford, academic study and work in Copenhagen, in Canada and in the USA, and her professional appointments in Edinburgh. Work with Mann, Gotch and Osler in Oxford is documented through lecture notes, lab notebooks, scientific data and correspondence, and so is the close collaboration with Haldane on the Pikes Peak expedition. Other connections to the medical community in Oxford and beyond include the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (J.S. Haldane’s son), the physiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, Lady Osler and many others; FitzGerald’s correspondents abroad include the American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing.

In addition to FitzGerald’s personal papers depicting the life of a female pioneer in science, the archive contains family papers, diaries and correspondence dating back to the 18th century, revealing the history of a well-placed Hampshire/Buckinghamshire family of notable standing in the community and with many connections to renowned contemporaries, including Jane Austen, Henry Acland, Robert Browning and the Tennysons. Not least, the letters and journals of the male members of the Purefoy-FitzGerald family relating to their army and navy careers provide much potential for military history research, as for example, they include accounts of the front-line during the Napoleonic wars, and a first-hand account of the sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893.

The cataloguing project

The FitzGerald Archive has always received attention from researchers, but the fact it was largely unsorted and uncatalogued made it very difficult to access and use the papers. A new initiative to open up the archive came up during the the Saving Oxford Medicine Project, which lead to a funding proposal being submitted to the Wellcome Trust in early 2015.

Wellcome LogoWith funding granted for a 12-month project to sort, preserve, catalogue and make accessible the FitzGerald Archive, work on the collection started in November last year with surveying the papers, identifying conservation needs and priorities, establishing a high-level arrangement and not least a lot of background research on the topics and biographies included in the collection.

An archives assistant has since joined, and we are now a few weeks into the second phase of the project: the item level sorting, which goes hand with basic preservation work such as removing paperclips, with repackaging, and with collecting more detailed information in preparation for cataloguing.

FitzGerald letters

In the FitzGerald Archive: Bundles of letters…

FitzGerald research notes

…and publication drafts.

At this stage, we are looking at every individual letter to identify the writer and the addressee, the date it was written, and the events, people and places the letter is referring to, and sorting clinical notes and research papers, many of which have been left in a mess after decades of use. More than hundred journals and diaries are still awaiting attention by archivists and conservators, and so are hundreds of photographs.

Deciphering 19th century handwriting, identifying names, reconstructing dates, establishing details of biographies and family connections – all this is quite intricate work, requiring a lot of patience a good portion of detective work. But we get rewarded with fascinating findings almost every day, and the many links we find to contemporary events, people and topics in the world of science and beyond are astonishing.

We will make sure to share our discoveries, along with regular reports on the project progress – so watch this space for more big stories and little treasures from the life and work of Mabel FitzGerald.


Further reading
Martin Goodman: The high-altitude research of Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald, 1911-13

John B. West: Centenary of the Anglo-American high-altitude expedition to Pikes Peak
R.W. Torrance: Mabel’s normalcy: Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald and the study of man at altitude
Martha Tissot van Patot: The science and sagacity of Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh: Library and Archives Blog (March 2015)
International Women’s Day: Remembering Mabel Purefory FitzGerald