Being the first

Dr Valerie Kyle talks about being Pembroke’s first ever woman Fellow.

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Dr Valerie Kyle on her admission in 1983. PC: Ian Fleming.

I arrived at Pembroke almost by accident. Dr Brian Hazleman, who founded the Rheumatology Research Unit at Addenbrookes, had established a clinical lecturer job. On the interview panel was Lord Adrian, who was Master of Pembroke at the time. He was fantastic; he and his wife invited me to an informal supper in their home and asked me if I would become Pembroke’s first woman Fellow. They were both very kind and welcoming; I was amazed and delighted to be offered the first female fellowship.

I am a feminist and so I believed that you can only start to change a system by being inside it. I felt very lucky to be part of that at Pembroke. I think the whole experience was a learning curve, both for me and for the College.

I trained in Glasgow so didn’t know much about the whole College system: dinners and supervisions and the community aspect were all new to me. I felt that I was joining it as an outsider in all kinds of ways.

I was very aware that I was going to be the first woman but I had already spent time in the male-dominated world of medicine, so I was used to it. The fellowship certainly contained a mix of characters but I felt very welcome and people were easy to talk to. Nobody seemed in the least bit sexist and some Fellows in particular became good friends and allies. I worked with Dr Hickson the admissions tutor for Medicine and he was always really helpful. Any who disapproved of my appointment kept it to themselves.

I wasn’t the sort of lecturer they were used to having. I was based at Addenbrokes doing clinical work and dealing with diseases all day. I spend most of my time at the hospital so I wasn’t at College all that much. Maybe that made it easier by breaking them in gently!

I used to borrow a room in Old Court to teach small groups of students and I came in to College for dinner in the evenings and attended College meetings. We’d all line up in the Senior Parlour and then file in and sit in order of appointment. Afterwards, the most junior Fellows would have so serve the fruit.

The argument about admitting women students was over by the time I arrived. Later other women fellows were appointed and women students appeared in the groups that I taught; there was minimal fuss about it.

It is definitely true that it is hard to have children and combine that with a career in medicine. I was lucky that working in acute medicine and rheumatology meant I could be more flexible. However, I sometimes think that I was never did quite as well, either as a mother or as a doctor, as I could have done if I’d just focussed on doing just one of them.

Medicine has changed since the seventies. In classes of medical students now, typically over half are women. Of course in some specialties, such as orthopaedic surgery, there are still very few women. There are still fewer women in senior positions, although that is changing too.

When I joined the hospital in Bristol where I now work, I became their first physician in acute medicine. By then I was used to being the first!