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Gertrude Herzfeld (1890 – 1981)

The first practising women surgeon in Scotland and a trailblazer for future generations of female medical students.

Gertrude Herzfeld
Photo used with permission from Lothian Health Services Archive. Reference LHB8-17-1-xxvii.

The daughter of Jewish emigrees from Austria, Herzfeld was born and brought up in London. After moving to Edinburgh to study, she qualified from Edinburgh Medical School in 1914, just 22 years after women were formally admitted to the University of Edinburgh for the first time, and 2 years before the Faculty of Medicine admitted women on an entirely equal footing to men.

Committed to Edinburgh

Having made Edinburgh her home, she then spent the majority of her long career in the city, holding several concurrent positions. The first woman house surgeon at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, and at the Chalmers Hospital, Herzfeld was the first woman to 'take her seat' (become a practising surgeon) in the Royal College of Surgeons. She also worked at the Brunstfield Hospital for Women and Children and was a surgeon to the Edinburgh Orthopaedic Clinic, which she helped to found.

A specialist in the fields of paediatrics and gynaecology, Herzfeld’s surgical responsibilities embraced areas which are now specialties of their own including plastic, orthopaedic, abdominal and neonatal work and the treatment of burns and trauma.

Warmth and wisdom

Herzfeld - or "Gertie", as she was affectionately known was much loved by patients and colleagues alike. Her obituary in the British Medical Journal hailed her as a large woman in heart and mind, praised her warmth, wisdom and skill and fondly remembered the sight of her great figure bending over a tiny neonate, opening and semi-constructing a blind cystic duct, easing a pyloric stenosis, or, later, apposing two raw edges of a minute cleft palate.

Legacy and impact

As well as her long and distinguished surgical career, she also helped to found the Edinburgh School of Chiropody, chaired the Edinburgh branch of the British Medical Association and sat as National President of the Medical Women's Federation.

She served as a medical advisor to various charities, lectured in childhood surgery at her alma mater and, remembering the challenges she had faced as a young female student, promoted the cause of women in medicine. Her interests outside medicine were varied and included being Honorary Vice President of the Society of Women Artists.

Herzfeld's portrait is on display at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, and her name is in Edinburgh Council's name bank for future new streets within the city.