Monday, March 10, 2014

Lilian Cooper, MD, FRACS: Writing a Cranky Lady in History, One

Or, The Bearable Lightness of Finishing a Draft

This post is written as part of the Women's History Month Cranky Ladies of History blog tour. If  you would like to read more about cranky ladies from the past, you might like to support the FableCroft Publishing Pozible campaign, crowd-funding an anthology of short stories about Cranky Ladies of History from all over the world
Yesterday was a lay-day, as they probably say on the  Tour de France. Had intended to do a long walk in the morning but forgot the monthly Irish Session Sat. night. Consequently, got to bed about midnight, and when the alarm went off at 5.00 am I groaned and muttered, Not today, Josephine.
Which is more than usually apposite, since the main reason for the lay-day was that Sat. afternoon around 5.00 PM, I finished the first draft of my proposed Cranky Ladies in History story.
Oh, the relief! Oh, the bliss of one less deadline leaning on the shoulder, muttering, Gotta get this done *soon*, there's that paper coming up, and then there's the novel edit somewhere in the offing, And, AND, AND!!
But Lilian's Story, or my version thereof, is now on the page.
Or the screen, if you prefer.

Originally, after being invited to contribute at end of December,  I spent a good month trying to recycle my previous favourite cranky lady, of whom more later. Unfortunately, she was already established in a full-length novel, and devious, remarkable and norm-busting as she was, shrinking her to a smaller version just didn't work.
Fortunately a friend and colleague at James Cook (Uni) who did her PhD writing short stories based around a now-demolished but notable Brisbane house, suggested someone SHE had written a story round: Lilian Cooper.
Writing Lilian was a refreshing change, firstly, because this was a fully documented historical character. My previous cranky candidate, born sometime in the 6th Century BC, had to be extrapolated from a couple of seriously devious anecdotes and a pocket bio in Herodotus  With Lilian, I had historical records, photographs, even a couple of other reference books and a whole biography. Luxury.
(This is the pic in the ABC's news article, probably quite a young photo of Lilian, though she is already wearing her trademark high mannish collar and in this case, a pretty version of a bowtie. Her hair is still quite dark and not so frizzy as in some of the later pix, but her jaw is as prominent as always. No doubt, from that face, that she had determination wired in.)

She needed it. Born 1861, to a Kent family of eight children, she was 25 before her family bowed to her determination to become a doctor. By 1890, she had met Josephine Bedford, her lifelong companion, who found a way to learn how women could become doctors, and Lilian, having weathered the rigors of the London School of Medicine, passed exams in both England and Scotland - since no English medical examiners would consider a woman - and was a fully fledged MD.

Doing it tough continued in her first job, 3 pounds a week for morning and evening surgery, 20 to 30 winter house calls, and night calls as well, since the doctor she was "assisting" didn't like to be disturbed. Small wonder that after a few months she accepted an offer to assist a GP in Brisbane, Queensland, 12,000 miles away.

Things weren't much better, at first: the doctor was an alcoholic who made no attempt to help her make her way against the wall of male prejudice. Male doctors wouldn't speak to her, let alone take patients she referred, consult on cases, or help her with anesthesias, even referring to her as "Miss Cooper."
Lilian, however, found a solicitor to get her out of her assistantship and opened her own rooms in The Mansions, a still extant building in George Street. She advertised in the Brisbane Courier Mail in 1891:

Another odyssey of night calls, out-of-town trips, twice daily surgeries, and sometimes 48 hours without sleep ensued. Added to this, she had first a very poor horse to drive by day and bicycle to ride by night, and when matters improved, in 1896 an accident with her dog-cart left her with a fractured skull, which she had to wait through at home, with straw in the street outside.
Undeterred, Lilian accepted Josephine  - I could not help calling her "Jo" almost immediately - as her daytime driver, and kept going.
(Josephine driving Lilian on her rounds from the back of The Mansions, with one of her better horses)

The great flood of 1893 may, paradoxically, have eased Lilian's way, since she would have had much work as a result. By that year she was accepted into the Medical Society of Queensland, and soon she had her first honorary Medical Officer's appointment, at the Children's Hospital.

By that stage, according to one biographer, Lilian was already pretty stereotypically cranky: she smoked cigarettes, she swore like a trooper when her first sulky jolted into potholes, and swore even louder, perhaps to shock the nuns, when she began operating at the first Mater Hospital. Her treatment of patients' adjuncts provided a fund of anecdotes. A young typhoid patient's relatives, asking about her condition, were told, "as bad as can be, but I'll pull her through." (True.) When a priest tried to perform the last rites over another patient, Lilian snapped, "He won't need that. He's going to recover." That patient, the story claims, was too terrified to die.

When motor cars appeared Lilian bought one almost immediately, and her crankiness reached another dimension. The patients at the Children's Hospital apparently derived great amusement from her efforts to start (probably) her first car, but once on the road, she drove like Jehu. By 1909 she and Dr. Hardie, her fellow Honorary Medical Officer at the Lady Lamington Women's Hospital, had both been fined $3/3/6, a week of workman's wages, for speeding down Brisbane's main thoroughfare, Queen Street, over the limit of 6 miles an hour. She wore either a heavy white coat or a silk dust coat, and the then usual accoutrements of veil and hat, and her (probable) second car, a Humber, seems to have been yellow. Brisbane-ites not safe in hospital wards christened it the Yellow Peril. (For non-Australians, a reference to the anti-Chinese phobia that dominated turn of the century politics.)

It's at this point my story opens, in 1909, four years after Lilian became a founding member of the RACQ, then only the Automobile Club of Queensland. By September that year motorists are near feud point with police over speed limits, irate at the cost of licences and other such now-familiar motoring needs, but most of all, infuriated over a Bill in the offing to give police officers, among other things, the right of instant arrest for speeding motorists.

Writing about that, though, I'll save for another post.

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