Constance Leetham Terry was one of the first women to be elected to The Physiological Society. The group of six women were elected on 3rd July 1915, making a huge step towards sexual equality and acknowledging women as equal in intelligence and academic rigour as men.
Leetham was a demonstrator in physiology at the London School of Medicine for Women (now UCL Medical School), the first medical school in Britain to train women. Her colleagues there were other notable physiologists Winifred Cullis and Enid Tribe.
Leetham did a lot of research and published three papers, one in the Journal of Physiology and two in the Biochemical Journal. By looking at the effects of impurities in river water on fish life she showed how freshwater trout react to different levels of oxygen in the water. Her work also lead her to the physiology of the heart, and she was the first to show the presence of sympathetic nerve endings (those that are responsible for unconscious actions) in muscles of the heart ventricles – chambers in the heart that collect and pump the blood.
When Leetham was working in the early 1900s women had a difficult time being recognised as serious scientists. The Physiological Society, a union for many physiologists like Leetham, didn’t have a rule against female members, but nevertheless none had been elected until 1915. Women were sometimes allowed to attend meetings which would contain live readings or experiments. But the central events of the meetings – the dinners that followed them – were only open to the members of the Society and as such were exclusive to men.
In 1915, there was a big change. The Society committee passed ‘Rule 36’ – stating that ‘women be eligible for membership of the Society and have the same rights, duties and privileges as men’.
To gain membership, Leetham was first proposed by a Society member. Despite only gaining four signatures in favour of her membership, on 3rd July 1915 Leetham was voted in as a member of the Society along five other women. This marked the turning point in acknowledging women as equal to men in the field of physiology.
On 3rd July 2015 The Physiological Society is celebrating 100 years of women and diversity within the society.