- The Disappearance of Sophia Frances Hickman, M.D.
At lunchtime on 15 August 1903, Dr Sophia Frances Hickman left the Royal Free Hospital, in London, and did not return. She had begun a fortnight’s stint as a locum the day before and the absence was entirely uncharacteristic of this dedicated, prize-winning former student of the London School of Medicine for Women (LSMW). Now quite forgotten, Miss Hickman’s disappearance led, in fact, to one of the most prominent missing-person investigations of the early twentieth century.1 As family, friends and police searched the length and breadth of Britain for Miss Hickman, doubts began to be voiced about this woman, evidently mentally and physically strong, who had apparently deserted her post and, ultimately, her responsibilities as a qualified professional. Not only was her own reputation questioned, but also, by extension, that of her sex, along with their ability to cope with the expectations and pressures of medical practice. Press scrutiny of their capabilities encouraged medical women publicly to defend themselves and their aptitude as practitioners. The Hickman case led to the re-emergence of debates female doctors had imagined to be long over. Half a century previously, their mental, physical and moral capacity to act as members of the medical profession had been questioned by male colleagues and the public alike. Many had dismissed their ambitions as the fantastic aberrations of excitable feminine minds. In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, the numbers of registered medical women in Britain had reached nearly a thousand, from a paltry two only forty years before.2 And yet their numbers did not protect them, when women’s fitness to practise was challenged again in the wake of the Hickman case.
‘No disappearance for so many years past has so touched the imagination of the nation’, proclaimed the Daily News in October 1903.3 In this article, I want to explore how and why the disappearance of a ‘lady doctor’ stimulated the national imagination in the ways it did, and also to examine reactions from the lay and the medical press to the case itself and the wider issues it raised. Nearly quarter of a century later, in a section of his 1927 book From Clue to Dock entitled ‘Mysteries that Have Puzzled the World’, C. L. McCluer Stevens discussed ‘The Lost Lady Doctor’. About whom, he remarked, it could be claimed that it ‘is doubtful whether any happening of the [End Page 161]
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kind in modern times has created quite so big a sensation as did [her] disappearance in London, during the summer of 1903’.4 For McCluer Stevens, as well as for many others, the disappearance of Miss Hickman was a ‘tragedy’, but, ultimately, it was ‘one of London’s many unsolved mysteries’.5 Due to the publicity generated by the family of the missing woman through contemporary press agencies eager to sell reports to local newspapers all over the country, the case exercised the British, and indeed, the colonial, public in the summer and autumn of 1903.6 It emphasized the reach and power of the early twentieth-century press, yet it also showed that, even with country-wide attention, someone could vanish without a trace. Press and public alike were driven to speculate, without concrete evidence, as to why Sophia Frances Hickman left her post. Although the Hickman family version of events initially dominated, other theories abounded. Amongst all the rumours, however, it became evident that very real anxieties about professional women had not evaporated nearly fifty years after they had emerged. There is no possibility of solving this...