A Poster Speaks: The Mystery of the Disappearing Doctor

This is the framed poster that for many years has hung above my desk. 

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I first saw it – or, more probably, but not certainly, another copy of it – hanging on the stairs up to the attic of a marvellous second-hand bookshop run by a venerable and idiosyncratic bookseller, Peter Eaton, in a rambling Victorian house, Lilies, at Weedon in Buckinghamshire. [Here is an interview with Peter Eaton.] The house was packed with ephemera, such as this poster. None of it was for sale but it all added greatly to the atmosphere. Anyway, whenever I visited and made my way up the stairs to the silent attics I used to see this poster and wonder about the story behind it. But Peter Eaton died, Lilies closed and, while regretting the passing of this magical establishment, I particularly regretted no longer having contact with the ‘Missing Doctor’.

However, as luck would have it, not very long afterwards a dealer, knowing, of course, that I specialised in women’s history, offered me this copy of the poster. I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t the one from Lilies – it seemed too much of a coincidence – but, from what I was told, it had arrived along another route. 

Back in the 1990s, before the internet, I did  research for myself into the sad history behind the poster and have just come across the note book in which I made notes. Now, all these years later, I see that Sophia Frances Hickman has several Google entries – and even, alas, constitutes a thread on a Jack the Ripper website.  

But here is an unvarnished version of the story.

On Saturday 15 August 1903 Sophia Frances Hickman, a 29-year-old doctor, walked out of the gates of the Royal Free Hospital in Gray’s Inn Road, London, and disappeared.

Royal Free Hospital (now the Eastman Dental Hospital) Gray's Inn Road

Royal Free Hospital (now the Eastman Dental Hospital) Gray’s Inn Road

Her distraught father, with whom she lived at the family home, 57 Courtfield Gardens, South Kensington, wrote to The Times (pub 20 August) appealing for help. He told how his daughter had taken up her temporary  post on Friday 14 August, covering the fortnight’s absence of Dr Janet Campbell, who had been a fellow student with her a few years earlier at the London School of Medicine for Women.  Mr Hickman could offer no explanation for her disappearance other than ‘I believe the sight of so many great sufferers at the Royal Free Hospital and the anticipation of having to attend to so many dreadful cases that present themselves of a Saturday evening upset her nerves and caused her to seek rest elsewhere.’ He then suggests that ‘she may have lost her memory’, or, because ‘she is devoted to the poor and enters their dwellings freely, she may have been detained in some house against her will’.

He included in his letter a full description of his daughter- ‘who was usually called “Fanny”. The description  is repeated on the poster that was issued, offering a reward for information on her whereabouts. This reward came jointly from Mr Hickman and from the board of the Royal Free. Fanny Hickman is described as being of ‘5-ft 9-ins in height, of a powerful build’. Later comments from friends note that she was physically strong and apparently well-adjusted. During the previous winter she had worked for six months at the Battersea branch of the Clapham Maternity Hospital.

Speculation grew as to what had befallen Fanny Hickman. Newspaper articles dwelt on a suggestion that there had been friction between the staff at the Royal Free and that accounted for Miss Hickman’s disappearance.  This was firmly denied by the Royal Free.

On 8 October, with Miss Hickman still missing, her father published another letter in The Times in which he suggested that ‘It is quite possible that my daughter, overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a resident surgeon, which serious work she commenced on August 15 for the first time in her life, and feeling all alone and without the usual support of the very capable visiting surgeon and his locum tenens being also away for a holiday on Saturday, August 15 last, coupled with her horror of the work she was told she would have to do on the evening of that date at the gate of the hospital in attending to the awful cases resulting from quarrels between drunkards on pay day – may well have upset her balance of mind, caused loss of memory, and made her wander.’

Mr Hickman added that his daughter had lived at Roehampton for four years and added ominously that there ‘are two or more convents or nunneries at Roehampton’ – the veiled suggestion being that his daughter might have been incarcerated in one of these institutions against her will. Anti-Roman Catholic sentiment was not uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century and Mr Hickman was reported in The Times, 28 August 1903, as asserting that Roman Catholic priests, if they only exerted themselves, would be able to find his daughter because ‘Italian assassins and thieves are very fond of their Roman Catholic priests and confess everything to them.’ Journalists descended on Clerkenwell’s ‘Little Italy’ quarter, hunting for clues.

Needless to say the opportunity was not lost to impugn the ability of women doctors to cope with hospital work. In a letter to The Times, 15 October 1903, ‘A Hospital Physician’ wrote: ‘,,the tragical disappearance ..may serve to bring to the governors of hospitals and the public the important question of the fitness of women for such duties as she and others are now sometimes called upon to perform…Can it be regarded as seemly and becoming for a young woman to be brought in contact with the scenes which are of frequent occurrence in the casualty rooms of such hospitals, in large towns, where drunken men are brought in, more or less injured, and to be exposed to the conduct and brutality of such patients?’

There was a swift riposte from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (The Times, 17 October 1903) – ‘The suggestion made by ‘A Hospital Physician’ is about as wise as it would have been when Captain Speke disappeared if some old lady had urged that there should be ‘no more African exploration’. taking up up another of his points , she added ‘A Hospital Physician should rely less upon his imagination, and should look instead at facts patent to all the world. He professes to “know well that the majority of hospital patients of both sexes have a natural aversion” to being treated by medical women. The crowded out-patient rooms of the New Hospital for Women do not support his view. Many more poor women come each day than can be taken in. This does not indicate any “natural aversion”.’ A similar letter was sent to The Times by a (male) Royal Free Hospital surgeon.

On 19 October the mystery of Fanny Hickman’s whereabouts was solved by the discovery by a 10-year-old boy of her body deep in the undergrowth of the Sidmouth Plantation (now known as Sidmouth Wood) in Richmond Park.  Her father had mentioned in his appeals that his daughter was very fond of walking in Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common.

Sidmouth Wood, Richmond Park.   © Copyright Nigel Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Sidmouth Wood, Richmond Park. © Copyright Nigel Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The newspapers’ descriptions of Fanny Hickman’s badly decomposed body were more grisly than I think would now be acceptable.  It was clearly difficult to establish a cause of death and there was a lengthy inquest.  This was paralleled by news items to the effect that Miss Hickman was known to have a weak heart and, having climbed over a high iron fence, must have succumbed to a heart attack. Even Dr May Thorne, one of the New Hospital for Women’s surgeons, reported that she had examined Miss Hickman a couple of years previously and noted that she had an enlarged heart. All this was in an attempt to suggest – as her father would very much have liked – that Miss Hickman had died of natural causes.

However, an autopsy eventually revealed that Fanny Hickman had died of morphia poisoning.  It was revealed that a syringe containing traces of morphine sulphate had been found near her body. It was established that she had bought about 15 grains of morphine sulphate on 12 August. Sulphate of morphia was not used at the Royal Free and evidence was given that she would never have been required to give such an injection to a patient. For what it is worth, one of the Hickmans’ maids reported that she had found a syringe in the house, along ‘with several little glass tubes’. Dr Annie McCall, the founder of the Clapham Maternity Hospital, stated that these tubes contained sulphate of morphia.

The jury was given the option of returning an open verdict or one of suicide. They concluded that Fanny Hickman  death was suicide by poisoning with morphine, which she took while in a state of temporary insanity.  The reason for her action was really not established. She left no explanation and the only comment directly attributed to her that appeared in print throughout the entire episode was made not long before she took up her Royal Free Hospital temporary post and, paraphrased by the coroner, was to the effect that she wished ‘that she were a man, so that she could go and get drunk’  This  was made to appear as though it referred to her feelings about her new post and was taken as a joke at the time. But perhaps it referred to her feelings about life in general. Who knows?

The way in which Fanny Hickman’s disappearance was reported in the press reveals something of contemporary concerns  – the dangers of the white slave trade, of Roman Catholics, and of foreigners. On 3 September 1903 The Times editorial lambasted other papers’ ‘ display of some of the worst and meanest features of contemporary journalism. The distress of Miss Hickman’s family has been made the opportunity for a disgusting scramble for half-pennies  and pennies on the part of the least reputable newspapers of the metropolis…When absolutely no information has been obtained, placards and contents bills were so constructed as to lead passers-by to expect it; and no doubt a rich harvest has been reaped by stooping to these disgraceful practices.’ Doesn’t that all sound familiar?

Certainly the press coverage had its impact and Miss Hickman’s sad story was not forgotten, Sidmouth Wood becoming for a time a rather distressingly popular place in which to commit suicide. Virginia Woolf, by then a Richmond inhabitant, was well aware of Fanny’s fate.  In her May 1918 diary she described how

I wandered through Richmond Park in the moonlight with Desmond. We jumped a palisade into Miss Hickman’s funeral grove, & found the dark green mounds pointed with red rosettes. The rhododendron is a lovely flower for the moonlight’

Infinitely preferable to the journalists’ harrowing descriptions,  the thought of Fanny’s ‘funeral grove’ bathed in moonlight is  the one that I think of as I look up at the ‘Missing Lady Doctor’ poster.

For a more detailed analysis of the case it is  well worth reading Susan Collinson’s excellent article, The Case of the Disappearing Doctorpublished in The Psychiatric Bulletin, 1990.

 

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  1. #1 by Laura McKenna on October 1, 2013 - 12:42 pm

    What a sad story but a wonderful telling of it. In the late 1800s, she must have had considerable courage and determination to train as a doctor. She’d have needed it when faced with the prevailing negative and often antagonistic stance of the medical establishment of the time.

  2. #2 by Marjorie Sophia Davidson-Smith on July 12, 2014 - 9:36 pm

    I was very interested to read this ariticle about Doctor Hickman. She was a friend of my maternal grandmother. As a child I was often told stories about Dr. Hickman. She delivered my mother’s elder sister who was then named after her – Frances. She was also known as ‘Fanny.’ My mother must have been about three months in the womb when this tragedy happened and when she was born she was also named after Dr.Hickman – her first name, Sophia. When my mother eventually grew up and married and I was born I was given the second name of Sophia. I feel a deep link with Fanny hickman because my name came down from her. I only wish I knew more about her personal life. Thank you for writing the detailed and sympathetic account of her tragic death.

    • #3 by womanandhersphere on July 13, 2014 - 11:32 am

      Delighted to hear from you – and to know that Fanny Hickman’s close association with your family is still remembered.It is a haunting story.
      Elizabeth

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