Dr Grace Billings, who makes a cameo appearance in the second Flora Maguire Mystery, Murder at Cleeve Abbey, was the first female doctor in Gloucestershire, opening her first surgery in Cheltenham in 1899.
Grace spent her early years in Bristol, but at fifteen, her family moved to Cheltenham, where her father, a chemist, ran the Co-operative Drug Stores in the High Street. Grace had nine siblings, four sisters and five brothers.
Grace attended a new, progressive Public Day School for Girls at 3 Bays Hill Villas which opened in 1885 to provide “at a moderate cost, the best education procurable for the daughters of the Middle Classes” whose parents’ social status would “preclude their admission into the [Cheltenham] Ladies’ College.”
Grace trained at the London School of Medicine for Women and the College of Medicine of Durham University in Newcastle-on-Tyne. She graduated with an MB and BSurg in 1898 and set up her practice in Cheltenham the following year. Her sister, Mary, was also a doctor who received her medical degree from London.
At this time there was considerable hostility to women studying medicine. The Saturday Review wrote in 1870 that “lady aspirants to medicine and surgery desire to rid themselves speedily and effectually of that modesty which nature planted in them”. Grace was only permitted to treat women and children at her surgery, which only changed during WW1.
Grace’s Marriage Announcement
“Great local interest was taken in the marriage, at Charlton Kings, on Saturday, of Mr. Frederick Billings, a builder, and Miss Grace Harwood Stewart, who possesses the double degree of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. One of her sisters, who were her bridesmaids, is also a lady doctor, and many other lady members of the medical profession were among the guests.”
(Gloucester Citizen, 31 July 1899)
In 1900, Grace and Frederick had a son, Frederick Stewart, and a daughter, Brenda ten years later.During WWI, Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospitals were set up in Cheltenham to receive sick and wounded soldiers from the battlefields. The medical officers were almost exclusively men, but Dr Billings became medical officer at St Martin’s Hospital set up in a Cheltenham Ladies’ College boarding house.
Dr Billings continued her practice in Cheltenham, retiring in 1936, widowed in 1937, but came out of retirement to work with St John Ambulance during WW2. Her daughter Brenda also became a GP in Cheltenham and then School Medical Officer for Gloucestershire County Council. Her son, Frederick Stewart, who enlisted in the navy at 14 in WWI, became a Rear Admiral and was awarded the CBE in 1953.
In 1949 Dr Billings moved to a house overlooking Pittville Park, a few hundred yards from her first practice fifty years earlier. She died in 1957.
“When she first came to the town there were already forty doctors there; she was the forty-first, and the first woman. She has related how she called on them all, as was the excellent custom of those days, and how she was received quite kindly, but, in some cases, obviously not seriously.”
“For some time she was the only woman present at B.M.A. meetings. It needed some courage to go to the dinners after the meetings, when women were in the extreme minority, but this never seemed to worry Dr Grace. It was amusing to watch her light her after-dinner cigar in complete unconcern at the surprised glances of newly arrived doctors to the area.”
Obituary, BMJ 13th July 1957