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Isala Van Diest: Belgium’s first female doctor

Growing up in a doctor’s family

Anne Catherine Albertine Isala Van Diest was born in Leuven on May 7, 1842 in a wealthy doctor’s family with seven children. Isala was the fourth child and grew up in an open-minded, progressive environment. Notably, the six Van Diest daughters received the same upbringing as the only son. The children travelled regularly with their parents, who believed in broadening their view of the world. From an early age the family were influenced by British socially progressive circles with which their mother Elisabeth Génie had contact. The medical profession of their father Pierre Joseph Van Diest probably inspired Isala to consider studying medicine.

Isala Van Diest at 13
13-year-old Isala (left) and her sister Miranda, by Pierre Joseph Steger, c. 1855.

A desire to study medicine

However, there was one problem. At that time, there was no higher secondary education for girls in Belgium. To prepare herself as best as possible for university studies, Isala Van Diest had to go to Switzerland where she attended a secondary school in Bern. In 1873 she returned to Belgium to enroll at the faculty of medicine in Leuven. Again, the door was slammed shut. Women were not allowed to study at the university (a situation that did not change until 1920).

She gathers support from a number of professors at the university, but Belgian bishops, who make up the Board of Directors of the university, strongly oppose her admission. The final decision rests with Rector Alexandre Namèche – who says no. Out of respect for her father, the rector does come up with a so-called ‘compromise proposal’. Isala is allowed to study physiology and obstetrics classes as a “free student” so she can become a midwife. She politely but resolutely refuses to accept this proposal.

Back to Switzerland

The good news is that Swiss universities were opening their doors to women who did not have access to higher studies in their own country. Most foreign female students were coming from Russia, Poland and England. To prepare herself well for higher scientific studies Isala first went to Germany to study German, Latin and mathematics. In the summer semester of 1874, she then began her studies in natural sciences at the University of Bern. Her doctoral dissertation in 1876 dealt with a medicinal plant from the Andes, the condor vine (Gonolobus condurango) which was believed to have medicinal properties.

After her doctoral dissertation, Isala concentrated entirely on medicine. In May 1879, at the age of 37, she obtained her doctor’s degree with a thesis on hygiene in prisons. In her own words, her choice of topic was a pretext to explain her position on crime and humanity, and to propose reforms in the penitentiary system.

“I chose medicine because I realized the great moral influence you as a doctor can have on women. While you alleviate their physical suffering, those women open their hearts to you. I see medicine as a way to help women emerge from their dull resignation, to let them help each other and make them stronger so that they demand what they are entitled to.”

Isala Van Diest

Working as a doctor in London

Now armed with a medical diploma, Isala Van Diest returned to her native country: the first and only female doctor in Belgium. Once again though, obstacles were placed in front of her. There was simply no opportunity for her to open a practice.

She decided to work as a doctor in a country where she would be less alone, and her eyes turned to Great Britain. At that time the British were no longer surprised by the sight of a female doctor. In 1866, pioneer Elisabeth Garrett Anderson had started a medical practice, which would later be transformed into the New Hospital for Women. It was in that hospital that Isala Van Diest was able to work in 1880-81.

The New Hospital for Women in London

In 1882 Isala returned to Belgium in 1882, but her Swiss diploma was still not recognized. She had to take additional exams. These were obstetrics and surgery at the Free University of Brussels, which since 1880 had started to admit female students.

Royal consent and law change

In 1884, Isala settled permanently in Brussels. Firstly she worked as a doctor for Le Refuge, a refuge for former sex workers. On 27 November 1884, the recognition she had been waiting for finally came. A Royal Decree appears in the Belgian Official Gazette authorizing Isala Van Diest to become the first woman to practice the profession of doctor in Belgium. Six years later, the law of 10 April 1890 on the awarding of academic degrees would grant women definitive access to the profession of doctor or pharmacist.

From 1886 onwards, Isala Van Diest gradually built up her own practice in Brussels. She now had permission to practice the profession, but there were still obstacles to be overcome. She faced strong prejudices from both patients and colleagues. In the beginning she treated more foreign patients than Belgians, especially British and Americans for whom female doctors were no longer a rarity. It was not until 1890 that she was able to see more Belgian than foreign patients.

She also tended to care more for women and children than men. This was partly due to her own belief that women are better off with female doctors, but also partly because men still felt uneasy about seeing a female doctor.

Feminist and activist

Aside from her work as a doctor, Isala Van Diest was also committed to the fight against international trafficking in women. She was a long-time member of the Société de Moralité Publique which was founded in 1881 to end international trafficking in women. With her support, Le Refuge was established; a shelter for women who wanted to leave prostitution but had no financial means to support themselves. The building was located on Chaussée de Vleurgat in Ixelles. Isala Van Diest was a member of the board and was responsible for the medical care of the women in the shelter. She was also a supporter of the international abolitionist movement to eradicate prostitution.

Isala Van Diest is considered a fervent defender of women’s rights, originating from her stay as a doctor in Great Britain when she came into contact with British feminism. Around 1890 she co-founded an association for equal rights for women, which would later join the Ligue Belge du Droit des Femmes. She was very active within the League for several years.

Visually impaired in later life

In 1902, Isala was forced to give up her medical practice due to her failing eyesight. She then also gave up her directorships at the Société de Moralité Publique and Le Refuge and moved to Knokke on the Belgian coast, together with Baroness de Bieberstein, the former chairman of Le Refuge.

In her last years, Isala Van Diest was almost blind and led a very secluded life. In 1914, the city of Antwerp honored her with the honorary chairmanship of the exhibition The Contemporary Woman. Isala Van Diest died in Knokke on 6 February 1916.

An outstanding legacy

In 2002, a special 2-euro coin was minted to honor Isala Van Diest on the occasion of the centenary of the first Women’s Day in Belgium. This was the first time that a woman who was not a member of the Belgian royal family appeared on Belgian coin. Her name can be found in a street in Ghent, and a learning center in UCLouvain.

Isala Van Diest on a 2-euro coin
Isala Van Diest appears on the 2-euro coin alongside Marie Popelin, Belgium’s first female lawyer.

In 2020, a research group at the University of Antwerp, which conducts groundbreaking research into the vaginal microbiome, was named after Isala Van Diest. On 24 November 2021 Google celebrated her with a special Google Doodle:

Isala Van Diest in a Google Doodle

I am amazed at Isala Van Diest’s remarkable journey from aspiring student to pioneering physician and advocate. She faced obstacles at every stage. But showed tremendous determination and resilience to overcome societal barriers and bring about positive change. Her contributions have left an indelible mark on Belgian history and serve as an inspiration to individuals around the world striving for equality and justice.

I am delighted to add Isala Van Diest to my growing list of Remarkable Belgians.

14 thoughts on “Isala Van Diest: Belgium’s first female doctor”

    1. It does not seem so long ago does it? Imagine how different the world might be now if women had been able to study and work and be in politics for the last 300 years instead of 100 (or less).

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