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What’s in a name?
  1. Debbie A Lawlor
  1. Department of Social Medicine, University of Bristol, Canynge Hall, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2PR, UK;

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    The first woman in Britain to qualify and practise as a doctor had to change, not just her name, but her gender in order to do so. “James Barry” joined Edinburgh University in 1809 as a “literary and medical student” and qualified with a medical doctorate in 1812. She maintained her male disguise (necessary at that time to study and practise medicine) throughout her distinguished career as a medical officer and surgeon in the British army. Only on her death was her true identity revealed:

    “…His professional acquirements had procured for him promotion to the staff at the Cape. About 1840 he became promoted to be medical inspector, and was transferred to Malta. He proceded from Malta to Corfu where he was quartered for many years... He there died about a month ago, and upon his death was discovered to be a woman. The motives that occasioned and the time when commenced this singular deception are both shrouded in mystery. But thus it stands as an indisputable fact, that a woman was for 40 years an officer in the British service, and fought one duel and had sought many more, had pursued a legitimate medical education, and received a regular diploma, and had acquired almost a celebrity for skill as a surgical operator.”

    excerpt from the Manchester Guardian of 21 August 1865

    Interestingly, the year of Barry’s death (1865) was the year in which Britain’s first official female medical graduate—Dr Elizabeth Garret—graduated having passed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries.

    Things have changed dramatically since the 1800s and in many British medical schools female graduates now out number males and are more likely to achieve merit and distinction awards. But in both clinical and academic medical practice male dominance of positions of power, as well as gender stereotyping and prejudice continue.

    This journal has a policy of using only initials for author’s first names on publications. As a result one’s identity is concealed. A consequence of this is that readers can continue the misapprehension that the authors of research are necessarily male. I have had a number of papers press released from this journal, which illustrate this point. Despite submitting articles with my name as Debbie A Lawlor this is replaced by initials (D A Lawlor) in the final proof and published paper. However, the people who write the press release feel that a full name is required in the contact details. In all of the press release drafts I have been sent I have been assigned a male name—most commonly David and in the most recent one Andrew. On two occasions when I phoned to ask why I am not only given a wrong name but am assumed to be male I have been told that this reflects the fact that authors are more commonly male. This may be true, and it may also be true that on occasions male authors have been given female names. However, my experience illustrates that the journal and press office have strict but differing policies concerning names and that the result can encourage gender stereotyping of researchers. The journal decides we can only have initials and surnames, and the press office that everyone has to have at least a first and last name. Surely, this should be for us to decide?

    People’s names are important. They are our identity. I don’t identify with David Lawlor. It’s not me. I like to identify myself with my first and last name. I know of other female academics who say they never put their full name on submissions because they think the review process is prejudicial against women scientists. I have no evidence that this is true, but it’s sad that some bright and senior women actually think this. For some individuals there may be no clear differentiation in terms of importance between their names.

    With respect to having names on papers and in press releases the solution to me seems simple. We now teach medical students that good communication includes addressing individuals in the way they indicate they want to be addressed—if they say Debbie its Debbie, if Doctor Lawlor then use that, and so on. Medical journals and the media are rightly concerned with good communication and for me the same should apply here. All journals should have a policy that allows authors to have their name on the article in whatever form they choose and the press releases should then use this form. If someone chooses not to disclose their first name they should not be made to, neither should an incorrect name be applied. There is no reason why the format of names on papers has to be uniform. More broadly female scientists need to feel confident that the system values and supports their contribution on an equal footing with men.


    • Debbie A Lawlor is funded by a UK Department of Health Career Scientist Award. The views expressed in this piece are hers and not necessarily the Department of Health’s.

    • Editor’s note: In response to this article, we have changed the style of the authors’ names in the journal to be as presented to us.

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