Headstrong: the second sex at the Tavistock and Portman

12 March 2020

Clinical psychologist Louise Lyon reflects on the contribution of two early Tavistock Clinic women in honour of International women’s day on Sunday.

Mary HemingwayWomen are the largest staff group at the Tavistock and Portman making up over 75% of the staff. From the very beginning, women have played a hugely important role in the development and history of the Tavistock and Portman as an organisation. But when you look back at history and popular culture, names such as Mary Hemmingway and Doris Robinson are not remembered.

A feminist writing of history brings to the fore the women who played a vital contribution to thinking and practice in society but whose contributions are not enshrined alongside male counterparts. Through the lens of feminism, Glenn Glossing – our senior-comms-officer-turned-historian has delved deep into the Tavistock library, to find out about the early days of the Tavistock and women’s contribution. You can find out about our founding ‘mothers and fathers’ at a special Centenary exhibition in the art space outside our library at the Tavistock Centre.

Men are framed as the movers-and-shakers of their time – concretised through plaques and statues. Our Centenary project is putting women at the heart of the celebrations, women who were among the founders and creators our Trust and its heritage, alongside the Bions and Bowlbys.

Who was Mary Hemingway? Mary Hemingway Rees, or Molly (pictured left) as she was known, was one of the original seven members of staff of the Tavistock Clinic and the only woman among the founders. A trained Surgeon from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, she had been a key member of staff at Hugh Crichton-Miller’s Bowden House and joined him in the new project of the Tavistock Clinic. While Crichton-Miller saw the first patient, Dr Mary Hemmingway saw the clinic’s second patient.

At the Tavistock Clinic she was responsible for coaching students and for private treatment. She was dealing primarily with neurotic cases, but also occasionally the borderline psychotic. By 1921 she was also responsible for delivering part of the Tavistock Clinic’s lecture series, giving seminars on the psychological aspects of nursing.

She married JR Rees in 1921 becoming his most steadfast supporter and valued critic. That support led him to first become Assistant Director of the Tavistock Clinic, then Director, before going on to take up a role as Director General of the World Federation for Mental Health workers.

Who was Doris F Robinson? In 1922, Doris became the Tavistock Clinic’s first social worker. In 1927, Doris was invited by the Commonwealth Fund alongside a number of professionals to find out about mental hygiene and child guidance practices in America. When she returned, William Moodie from the Maudsley set up the London Child Guidance Training Centre. Later in 1927 the Commonwealth Fund selected five British social workers including Doris to train for a year as a Psychiatric Social Workers (PSW) in America. They were trained in a combination of theoretical and practical work, with an emphasis on social histories and a form of psychological case analysis.

When she returned to the Tavistock Clinic with her new skills Doris Robinson became our first PSW, taking on the title of Chief PSW, becoming responsible for training and heading the PSW team that she developed.

The Centenary has been wonderful opportunity to celebrate the many women who have contributed to the organisation we are today. You can find out more through looking at our history on our website.

Our centenary exhibition is currently available in the art space on the ground floor outside of the Tavistock library and will shortly be moving into the 5th floor lecture theatre.  

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