Isala Van Diest, the first female doctor in Belgium
Isala Van Diest was born in Leuven in 1842, into an upper middle class family of the new Belgium. Her parents had modern ideas and made no distinction between the educations given to their son and his six sisters. Her father was a doctor and obstetrician while her mother maintained close contact with progressive British feminist circles.
When her father died, she decided to take over his practice and practise medicine. It was not a decision taken lightly, but rather the birth of a true vocation, and to fulfil it she would have to overcome many obstacles with determination, courage and perseverance and break down deep-rooted prejudices. The first problem was that she needed a degree to be able to practise, but to enrol in the Faculty of Medicine she had to have studied Greco-Latin humanities. This training was not available to girls in Belgium at the time. Maybe not in Belgium, but it was in Switzerland, so she attended secondary school in Bern. And in 1879, she obtained her medical degree in Bern and became the first Belgian woman to obtain a university degree. Armed with her precious diploma, she worked for a few months in a British hospital for women (Britain already had many female doctors) but then decided to return to her homeland in 1882 with the intention of opening a medical practice. A disappointment awaited her there, as she was told that her Swiss diploma did not allow her to work in her home country. As the Université Libre de Bruxelles had opened its medical courses to women in 1880, she enrolled there. However, the atmosphere was not favourable to female students, and Isala had to enter the lecture hall through a back door to escape taunts and even stone-throwing by her male classmates.
In 1883, she finally obtained her Belgian degree as a doctor of medicine, surgery and obstetrics. At the beginning of her medical practice, she worked at the Refuge, a reception centre in Brussels for former prostitutes, while at the same time campaigning for women's rights. In 1886, she finally opened her own medical practice to treat women and children in particular. She worked until 1902, the year she turned sixty, when eyesight problems forced her to give up her professional activities. She retired to Knokke, where she lived until her death in 1916.
In 2011, the National Bank of Belgium issued a commemorative €2 coin to mark the centenary of International Women's Day, on which she appeared as an effigy together with the country's first female lawyer, Marie Popelin.
Photo Domaine Public