Edith Stoney – a medical physics pioneer

Last week I was honoured to be one of four medical physicists in the Science Council’s list of 100 leading UK practising scientists, designed to highlight the range of roles available to those working in science. 37% of medical physicists are women, a significant advance on female representation in many fields within physical science. But it hasn’t always been the case. In this article, my colleague Prof Francis Duck celebrates Edith Stoney, one of the first female pioneers in medical physics, who clearly demonstrated the dedication, compassion and pragmatic ingenuity characteristic of the leaders in our profession.

Women made enormous contributions to both civilian and military life during the First World War. For scientists like Edith Stoney (1869–1938), with a first in maths from Cambridge, this meant taking her physics to the front line of battle.

Edith, Florence and Johnstone Stoney

Edith Stoney (left) with her sister Florence and their father, G. Johnstone Stoney (Newnham College Cambridge Archives)

Edith came from a scientific family, the daughter of G. Johnstone Stoney FRS, the Irish physicist who coined the word electron, and sister of Florence Stoney OBE, who became a pioneer radiologist.

On leaving Cambridge she first worked for Sir Charles Parsons, carrying out complex calculations on marine turbines and searchlight design. She became a life member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, one of a small minority of women at that time. Then, after three years teaching mathematics at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Edith became the physics lecturer at the London (Royal Free) School of Medicine for Women, in 1899.

In 1902, with Florence, she set up the new x-ray service at the Royal Free Hospital, gaining practical knowledge of particular value for her later war work. At this time, Edith also actively supported the women’s suffrage movement, and became the first honorary treasurer of the British Federation for Women Graduates.

Fractured femur

X-ray from Florence Stoney showing a splintered femur with shrapnel fragments

During the war years, Edith left her teaching career to work in field hospitals to provide x-ray and electrotherapy services to wounded soldiers and civilians, with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). The summer months of 1915 in northern France acclimatised her to the challenge of military radiography, with its traumatically injured soldiers and difficult working conditions. She was solely responsible for the x-ray service, pioneering the diagnosis of gas gangrene, and establishing accurate localization of bullets and shrapnel using stereoscopy.

By October, under threat from the advancing front, the unit was reassigned to the French Expeditionary Force, and was sent to Serbia and Salonika. Towards the end of the war she returned to northern France to lead the X-ray departments at the SWH hospitals there.

Thumbnail sketches of her at this time:  “Grey uniform, grey hair, pale blue eyes, very intent on her job, – no special friend – no other interests, in and out of the x-ray rooms and developing rooms like a moth.” And another:  “A learned scientist, no longer young, a mere wraith of a woman, but her physical endurance seemed to be infinite; she could carry heavy loads of equipment, repair electric wires sitting astride ridge tents in a howling gale, and work tirelessly on an almost starvation diet”.

She retired to Bournemouth in 1925. She still loved adventure and travelled widely. In 1934 she spoke to the Australian Federation of University Women in Adelaide on Women in Engineering, remarking particularly on the contribution made by women workers during the war. Newspaper reports from this time described her walking with a stick and “with her silvery hair and kind blue eyes, she looks as if she might have engaged all her life in studying Celtic literature”: “Small and slight almost to the point of fragility, she names running a motor car, bicycling, and gardening as her favourite hobbies”.

Edith Stoney died on 25 June 1938. She had spent her life dedicated to opening scientific and professional opportunities to women, and she bequeathed 2 funds to maintain this support, one for graduate women scientists to spend time on research overseas, and the other for women physics graduates to enter medical training. She was a tough and single-minded woman with high academic ability. She showed considerable bravery and resourcefulness in the face of extreme danger, and imagination in applying physics to clinical care under the most difficult conditions of war.

When the Hospital Physicists’ Association was inaugurated in 1943, only 4 of the 53 founder members were women, including Mary Waller, Edith’s successor at the Royal Free. Over one third of the current membership of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (successor to the HPA) are now women. At a time when medical physics was still struggling to become an identified profession, Edith Stoney stands out as one of its most able pioneers.

This profile of Edith Stoney is a condensed version of an article that may be found at: www.ipem.ac.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Publications/SCOPE/SCOPE_DEC2013_LR.pdf

Francis Duck is a retired medical physicist and visiting professor at the University of Bath. He has published several essays on the history of medical physics, and a book, Physicists and Physicians. A History of Medical Physics from the Renaissance to Röntgen (IPEM 2013).