Adelaide pioneers: Laura Fowler - our first woman medical graduate
Laura Margaret Fowler was born in Adelaide on 3 May 1870, one of four children of George Swan Fowler and Catherine Janet Fowler. The Fowlers were a prominent middle-class family who had emigrated to South Australia to improve their financial prospects and went on to build a successful wholesale grocery business.
Laura went to Madame Marvel's school in Adelaide, and then on to England to finish her schooling, as her family moved there while her brother James attended Cambridge University.
The family returned to South Australia in 1884 and in 1885 Laura decided to try for Matriculation to enter the University of Adelaide. She spent a year studying for the examinations, and in late 1886 matriculated with extremely high grades, entering the medical course the following year.
She graduated in Medicine and Surgery in 1891, to become the University of Adelaide's first woman medical graduate, also winning the Elder Prize along the way.
After graduation, Laura Fowler was appointed House Surgeon at the Women's and Children's Hospital, and worked in that role until her marriage in 1893 to fellow physician Charles Henry Standish Hope, who had graduated MBBS in 1889 and MD in 1891.
Following their marriage, the couple went to India on a mission to provide medical assistance to the Indian people. From the start they saw themselves as self-sufficient doctors rather than missionaries, but their first visit did not prove successful in that they were unable to find sufficient work to support themselves.
After a period back in England, they returned to India in 1895 and settled in Bengal, and would go on to devote thirty years of their lives to Bengal, despite the deleterious effects of the climate on their health, particularly that of Charles.
They worked for a variety of church missions in various parts of Bengal, alternating that with spells of independent work. There were occasional visits back to England and South Australia and, during the First World War, a period of war work in field hospitals in Serbia.
Their work was often high-pressure, given the enormous demand for medical services in India. In 1916, for example, when they were stationed at the Church of Scotland Mission at Kalimpong in North Bengal, Laura was in medical charge of a mission of 540 children and 73 staff.
In 1933 Laura Hope retired and both she and her husband were honoured with the Kaisar-I-Hind gold medal for their work in India.
Laura Hope was a pioneer at a time when the choices open to women were still strongly limited by gender prescription.
She died in 1952 at the age of 84. ■
For further information, see Alison Mackinnon, The New Women, Adelaide's early women graduates, Wakefield Press,1986, pp44-60.