A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service
Agnes Yewande Savage
Agnes Yewande Savage, born in Edinburgh in 1906, was the first West African woman to achieve a medical qualification. Alongside her father Richard Savage Sr., a renowned Nigerian doctor, publisher and nationalist politician, and her brother Richard Jr., the first African doctor to receive a commission from the British Army, Agnes and her family established a gender diverse medical dynasty across Britain and Africa.
Agnes was extraordinary from a young age, excelling at school and passing exams at the Royal Academy of Music in 1919, aged 13. In 1923, Agnes won a scholarship to George Watson’s Ladies College, before studying at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, where she obtained a first-class honour in all her subjects. Also, at university, she won prizes for general proficiency in class work, was the first woman to achieve an award in forensic science as well as a prize in dermatology and the Dorothy Gilfillan Memorial Prize for the best woman graduate in 1929. Agnes received her medical qualification in 1930.
Her medical expertise secured her position as a Junior Medical Officer in Ghana; a role in which she suffered racial discrimination; underpaid with poor living conditions, entirely contrasting her similarly qualified white colleagues. In 1931, Reverend Andrew Fraser of the elite Achimota College offered her a post as a medical officer and teacher. Here, she established nurse training schools connected to the Korle Bu Hospital and worked in the hospital’s maternity department. But only in 1945 was Agnes granted by the Colonial Office equal terms of employment, salary and retirement as a black European.
In 1947, Agnes was invalided for service, suffering from physical and psychological exhaustion, and officially retired, returning to Britain. She settled in Frithsden Copse, Hertfordshire with her friend, Esther Appleyard (who had been Chief Education Officer in Ghana) where she cared for her brother’s children during school holidays. Agnes died in 1964 of a stroke. As the first West African woman to receive a medical qualification at a time when racism restricted African employment within medicine, Agnes set a precedence for African women in the medical profession.
Henry Mitchell, ‘Dr Agnes Yewande Savage - West Africa’s First Woman Doctor (1906-1964)’ https://centreofafricanstudies.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/v2blogpost-agnesyewandesavage-westafricasfirstwomandoctor-7.pdf [Accessed 21st April 2020]
Georgina Ferry, ‘A woman’s place: Agnes Yewande Savage, Susan Ofori-Atta, and Matilda Clerk: three pioneering doctors’ ‘’Perspectives’, Vol 392 No.10161 p2258, 24th November 2018, https://drive.google.com/drive/search?q=Agnes%20savage