Dr Elizabeth Bell (1869 -1934)
Elizabeth Gould Bell was born in Newry, County Down. She and her sister Margaret were among the first five women to enter the Medical Faculty of Queen’s College Belfast in 1889 when female students were first admitted. Of these, only Bell and Henrietta Rosetta Neill went on to achieve their university degrees (in 1893) rather than the diploma from licensing bodies which was the more usual route for women medics at that time. A member of the Ulster Medical Society from 1893, she married Dr Hugh Fisher three years later. Dr Fisher died of typhoid fever in 1901, leaving Bell a widow with one young son.
It was as one of the first fully qualified female medical doctors then that she went on to enter general practice in Belfast, first at 41 and later 83 Great Victoria Street. Given the dearth of female practitioners, it is perhaps not surprising that most of her patients were women and children, her specialism reflected in her positions as Honorary Physician to the Women’s Maternity Home in Belfast and the Belfast Babies Home and Training School at The Grove, Belfast. She was also medical officer to the Malone Place Hospital and to Riddel Hall, an independent hall of residence for female protestant students and teachers of Queen’s University. From 1922 to 1926, she assisted the Babies’ Clubs welfare scheme, run by the Belfast Corporation, which provided subsidised milk for impoverished mothers.
Bell was an active member of the ongoing suffrage movement, joining the Belfast-based Irish Women’s Suffrage Society and the Women’s Social and Political Union. As one of the early believers in the need for militant action, she was arrested in London in 1911 for throwing stones at the windows of Swan & Edgar’s department store. As a result, she and her friend Margaret Robinson spent time in Holloway Prison. During the period of heightened tension in the years just before the war, she cared for hunger-striking suffragette prisoners in Crumlin Road Jail.
On the outbreak of war, Bell joined the Women’s Medical Unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps in July 1916, leaving on 2nd August for Malta where she was assigned to St Andrew’s Military Hospital. Dr Bell was one of five ‘lady doctors’ to work there, doing precisely the same work as their male colleagues and receiving the same pay, rations, travelling allowances and gratuity as temporary commissioned male officers of the RAMC. They were, however, classed as civilian surgeons and had neither military rank nor status. Dr Bell returned to Ireland in July 1917 where she received news of the death of her only son, Lieutenant Hugh Bell Fisher, who died from wounds he received at the Battle of Passchendaele on 23 November 1917. Dr Bell lived at 4 College Gardens, Belfast from 1925 and died there in 1934.