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Centenary Souvenir

Dame Beulah Bewley Emeritus Reader in Public Health Sciences, University of London, and (Retired) Public Health Consultant

Dame Beulah Bewley was born into an upper-middle-class family, the second daughter of Ulster Bank Official John Knox and wealthy heiress Ina Charles, in 1929. Brought up in a patriarchal Northern Irish society, Beulah lived in a spacious Edwardian house with a nanny, a cleaner and even a chauffeur. Although her mother had a private income from her father, it was looked after by Beulah’s father because at that time women were not considered savvy enough to know what to do with the money.

As a child, Beulah thought that she would marry a clergyman and be a great musician. She also dreamed of being a doctor. Naturally, such an announcement in those times was met with resistance and Beulah recalls her Uncle Joe suggesting that she do dentistry so that she could meet a husband and have children. “Dentistry would be more suitable for a nice girl like you,” he told her. Beulah regarded her childhood illnesses such as, when she had measles, cycled into a wall and injured her face because she did not wear her ‘huge glasses’ that she did not like (she was short-sighted) and when she had her appendicectomy, as positive experiences. “I kept saying to myself that it was all good experience for me because I knew that I wanted to be a doctor, and any dealings I had with professionals would be useful,” she says. Inspired by her spinster aunt who said “No woman should be entirely dependent on a man,” Beulah ignored her uncle’s advice and went to Trinity College, Dublin to study medicine. In her autobiography, she talks about her two boyfriends, Mervyn the much older solicitor from Sligo, and David the dental student from Dublin and that the long distance between the two, facilitated both relationships. “It was easy to juggle these two men,” she writes in her book. However, she ended up marrying

Thomas, a fellow medical student, in 1955. Her best decision was choosing a supportive husband. Beulah qualified in 1953, and it was the first year that the General Medical Council (GMC) insisted that every doctor do two six-month periods of medicine and surgery before registration. She describes her working life between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-eight as an “unplanned, zigzag career.” After completing her house jobs, Beulah and Thomas relocated to Essex and Beulah had jobs in general practice, Accident and Emergency, infectious diseases and worked a one in two on call. They spent a year in America where Beulah trained in paediatrics and moved to Dublin upon return to the UK, where they had their first child. Between 1958 and 1963, they had a further four children and Beulah continued to work part-time for the Family Planning Association in London while raising their children. She returned to her ‘second’ career full-time in 1969 when she undertook an MSc in epidemiology and social medicine at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. She later completed an MD where her ground-breaking Medical Research Council funded project focused on smoking in children in the 1970s. Beulah’s illustrious academic career included joining the School of Hygiene as a Senior Lecturer and Consultant, a role which was split between the School of Hygiene and King’s College Hospital, and involved both teaching and research. Beulah became a Member of the Medical Women’s Federation and was later elected their President, dedicating her time trying to get female doctors into positions of power in the 1980s. She served on the Royal Society of Medicine’s Section on Epidemiology and Public Health and on the Faculty of Public Health Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). She was Honorary Treasurer of the GMC, the highest rank any woman has achieved there and was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in 1985 and Fellow of the RCP in 1992. In 2000, Beulah was honoured with a DBE in recognition of her services to public health and in promoting equal opportunities for women in medicine. She was awarded an honorary LLB from Trinity College, her alma mater, in 2002. Beulah retired in 1994 and lives in London with her husband. They recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. * Favourite Music: All opera

Beulah’s advice to junior doctors is “Take up opportunities and put yourself forward.”


Medical Woman – Magazine Centenary Issue, April 2017  

The magazine for the Medical Women’s Federation (MWF), the largest and most influential body of women doctors in the UK which aims to promot...

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