Thursday 23 August 2012

Blue plaque for Oxford's first female professor

From English Heritage (


– First female professor at Oxford and pioneering ophthalmologist to be honoured –

Dame Ida Mann (1893-1983), a pioneering ophthalmologist and trailblazer for women in medicine, is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 13 Minster Road, West Hampstead, her childhood home. The plaque will be unveiled by the eminent Australian optometrist who worked with Mann, Donald F. Ezekiel, AM, on Wednesday 5th September at 12 noon.

Born in West Hampstead, Ida Mann was destined to follow her father into a career in the Post Office until a charitable donation led to her being invited to visit Whitechapel Hospital. Mann returned home “in an ecstatic daze” intent upon a medical career and from that moment on she was destined to become one of the most important women in medicine of the twentieth century. In the words of one her successors at Oxford she was “a woman of outstanding intellect, and with a formidable and charismatic personality.”

Donald Ezekiel, who knew Mann when she moved to Western Australia in 1949, said: “I was privileged to have known Ida Mann both professionally and personally while she was working as an ophthalmologist in Perth, Western Australia. Ida was instrumental in the advancement and development of contact lenses and it was due to her foresight and passion in the visual health of patients that millions of patients have benefited from better vision and healthier eyes.”

Mann began her medical studies in 1914 and after training in several London hospitals she gained her DSc in 1924. By 1927, after a spell at the London Eye Hospital, she was made senior surgeon at the Moorfields Eye Hospital. This was the first time a woman had been given the post and she beat her friend and rival Stewart Duke-Elder – also honoured with a blue plaque – to the position. Mann went on to introduce several pioneering techniques that improved the eye health of many and published several seminal texts on ophthalmology, including The Development of the Human Eye (1928), which became a standard text.

The Second World War was to have a great impact on Mann’s life. In 1937 she sprung the Hungarian contact lens pioneer Josef Dallos from the imminent Nazi threat in Budapest, having forcibly argued the need for exile during a long taxi ride around the city. Under her direction, patients at Moorfields were fitted with lenses as part of the early trials of Dallos’ work. The evacuation of Moorfields to Oxford during the war led to Mann’s appointment to a Fellowship at St Hugh’s College and in 1945 she was made Professor of Ophthalmology, so becoming the first woman to hold a Professorship at Oxford in any discipline. During her time at Oxford she overhauled the running of the Oxford Eye Hospital, treated numerous injured soldiers and was the first to use penicillin to treat eye infections.

It was also during the war that Mann married Professor William Gye, Director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, and emigrated to Australia with him in 1949 where she would stay for the rest of her life. It was here she undertook groundbreaking studies of eye problems among Aboriginal people as part of the World Health Organisation. By 1966 she had published Culture, Race, Climate and Eye Disease and she was also writing travel books under the name Caroline Gye, including The Cockney and the Crocodile. Mann was given a CBE in 1950 and made a Dame in 1980. In 1983, while at her desk at her home in Perth, she died. Mann continues to be revered in her field of medicine and there are honorary lectures in her name in London, Oxford and Australia.

Mann was born and lived for 41 years in West Hampstead and 13 Minster Road was her family home for most of this time. Among Mann’s childhood memories, she recalls the antics of her pet canary Spotty: “I was interested in his reflexes and remember his frenzied aggression before the mirror.” Even when studying in central London she remembers “any spare moments I had were spent tearing up the Edgware Road in a No 16 bus to get a good meal from Mother.”

Howard Spencer, blue plaque historian, said: “As the first female professor of any subject at Oxford, she epitomised the kind of strong, single-minded woman who could achieve success despite the chauvinistic atmosphere of the era. Her work undoubtedly led to healthier eyes for the masses, most notably through her promotion of contact lenses, and she cut a path for women in the wider field of medicine to follow.”

(With thanks to Ellen Harrison at English Heritage)


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