‘The Fairfield sisters? They were considered rather Bohemian…’
Sixteen-year-old Letitia, Winifred, two years her junior and nine-year-old Cecily Fairfield arrived in Edinburgh in 1901 and Letitia was enrolled at George Watson’s Ladies’ College for the 1901/02 session.
Before the move to Edinburgh, the Fairfield family had lived in London. The girls’ parents, Isabella Campbell Mackenzie was a pianist and their father, Charles Fairfield, an Anglo-Irish former soldier, journalist and failed entrepreneur. They engaged their daughters in intellectual debate and wide-ranging political conversation. Letitia recalled meeting the social reformer Edwin Chadwick, when she was a very small child.
However, the Fairfields’ marriage was not a happy one. Charles walked out on the family in 1901. After years of struggling under the emotional and financial pressures of her husband’s open affairs, gambling addiction, and the sudden revelation of a secret family in the USA, Isabella, now without financial support, returned to Edinburgh with her daughters. They initially lived in Newington with relatives and were living at 24 Buccleuch Place by 1905.
After school, Letitia was accepted into the Edinburgh Medical College for Women in Chamber Street. Although the University of Edinburgh granted medical degrees to women, they did not admit them to medical classes. She was only able to take up her place because she was one of the first recipients of a Carnegie Scholarship and the very generous gift of £100 from her Aunt Sophie. This was apparently given to her in return for her promising not to reveal Sophie’s secret morphine habit. Other family members disapproved of Letitia’s choice of career, feeling that it was not a very ladylike profession and that it would prevent her from finding a husband.
Looking back at her years at medical school, Letitia described meeting some wonderful teachers with great minds but noted that ‘the women were kept under as near an approach to the purdah system as a mixed school permits. We were forbidden university lectures.’
She remembered how she and her female colleagues were barred from several anatomy classes, for fear of embarrassing the male students. Despite receiving the highest marks in her year and winning several awards, when she qualified in 1911, she was recommended only for asylum positions.
These jobs were not considered to be very prestigious and they would have held little appeal to many young male doctors.
Letitia left Edinburgh and became a medical officer for London County Council Schools. Before the First World War, her main responsibilities were the supervision of children’s health and welfare and the inspection of special schools.
Letitia was interested and involved in a wide range of social and political issues throughout her career. In 1909, during her graduate clinical training in Manchester, she met the Pankhursts and for the next decade, she would combine her considerable professional workload with campaigning for Votes for Women, along with her sisters. She joined the militant suffragette organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, but was to leave when it was suggested that her professional position as a doctor might be threatened. She had also fallen out with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst because of their controlling attitude towards the movement.
She and her youngest sister Cecily were both active members of the Fabian Society. Letitia was on its Executive, which she put down to the fact that she was that rare thing, a woman doctor. However, once again, she would leave because her political views were seen to be detrimental to her work for the London County Council.
During the First World War, The War Office turned down Letitia’s offer of help. They believed that the help of women doctors was simply not necessary. However, by the end of 1916, following the deaths of many thousands of soldiers and numerous male doctors, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was established under the command of the redoubtable Mona Chalmers Watson, another graduate of the Edinburgh Medical College for Women. The WAAC; a corps of 40,850 women volunteers, of whom some 17,000 served overseas, would undertake ancillary, non-combatant duties. Letitia became the chief Medical Officer, with overall responsibility for the medical care of these women.
As the Second World War began, the War Office sought her out and she was appointed Senior Woman Medical Officer of the Armed Forces.
Between the wars and until she retired in 1948, Letitia returned to her work for the London County Council, pioneering the provision of health care for women, such as specialisation in obstetrics and the use of pain relief during labour. Her work also focused in particular upon the health concerns of prostitutes, homosexuals and the poor. She was called to the Bar in 1923, after training in law so that she had the right legal knowledge to tackle MPs about national public health issues.
Letitia was viewed as both eccentric and inspiring. She developed an interest in witchcraft and in parapsychology. She had converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1920s, which came as a great surprise to her family and friends. However, she disagreed with the Church’s line on many issues relating to women including birth control.
In an interview towards the end of her life, she said,’ I always chose, right from the beginning of my career, things that I thought were important but not popular.’ She spent her final days in an NHS hospital bed, wearing a ‘highly improbable blonde wig’, before she died on 1 February 1978 in her 93rd year. Her youngest sister, Cecily, better known as the writer, Rebecca West, survived her by five years.