WHEN it comes to medical pioneers Dr Jane Walker may not immediately spring to mind.

She was a doctor in the 1800s, a time when women had to fight to study, qualify and practise in the profession.

Despite this, Dr Walker dedicated her life to treating tuberculosis suffers at the sanatorium she set up in Nayland, Colchester.

She was also the founder and first president of the Medical Women's Federation (MWF) in 1917 which continues to be the UK’s largest and most influential body of women doctors.

Female medical pioneers are relatively absent from the history books compared to their male counterparts.

However, one woman searched the Essex and Suffolk Record libraries, MWF archives at the Welcome Museum and some of Dr Walker’s surviving colleagues to find out more about her life and work.

Dr Elizabeth Hall, founder and former medical director of St Helena Hospice in Colchester, researched Dr Walker for a presentation for the WMF spring meeting in Colchester this month.

Elizabeth says: “Dr Walker was a wonderfully gregarious woman and as I researched her the archives radiated energy and vision, her attention to detail, persuasiveness and humour.  “I was amazed that hardly anyone knew about Jane and her achievements. She was a pioneer in medicine at a time when women struggled to practise as doctors.”

Although it was possible to study medicine in England in Dr Walker’s day, women could not take qualifying exams or register. So after studying at the London School of Medicine for Women in 1880 she qualified in Dublin in 1884.

The 45th woman to register with the General Medical Council, Jane set up a practice in London where she mainly treated the poor and disadvantaged.

It was seeing the ravages of tuberculosis, also known as TB, that set her on her life’s work.

A friend whose son had TB told Dr Walker about a new treatment in Germany. She spent a month in the Black Forest at Nordrach, to see the new open air treatment where patients were encouraged to go outside and eat healthy food.

Elizabeth says: “It is hard for us to imagine now a time when TB wiped out so many people, but it did.

“Dr Walker came home from Germany convinced that this treatment should be explored in the UK. At that time treatment for TB meant keeping people warm with fires and closed windows and many had poor nutrition.”

Dr Walker set up her first TB sanatorium in Norfolk and started treating a few patients and as demand increased she formed a limited company to build and run the East Anglian Sanatorium in a Wissington near Nayland.

Elizabeth says: "At the time there was much local opposition to bringing TB patients to the neighbourhood.”

Opened in 1901, it was the first sanatorium of its kind and it was built to catch the sun and included a chapel with marble from Italy.

To begin with patients paid, but further buildings accommodated poorer people and when the National Insurance Scheme was introduced in 1911 numbers increased again and it eventually accommodated 300 patients.

In 1912 beds for children opened at the request of the Board of Education – eventually accommodating 100 children under 11 by 1916. Teachers were appointed and education continued under strict medical supervision.

The whole enterprise was self-sufficient and Jane developed a farm to provide fresh food including a herd of cows for milk, hens for eggs and an extensive vegetable garden.

Elizabeth says: “She energetically supervised all this and was very knowledgeable on farming and agriculture.

“She became a member of the Suffolk Agricultural Wages Board and could be seen in britches and boots giving orders with her usual authority."

Dr Walker had a very full and busy life.

Elizabeth says: “Jane continued her private practice in Harley Street, travelling to Nayland for several days a week to supervise. When in London she enjoyed entertaining interesting and influential people.

“She was knowledgeable on food and wine and loved the arts and collected for herself and the hospital.  She also enjoyed music and theatre. All these loves she introduced to patients and staff as part of their life at Nayland. She particularly liked staff and children performing in plays and concerts.”

With so much enthusiasm and energy, what does Elizabeth think drove Dr Walker?

Elizabeth says: “I couldn’t say what exactly drove her but I suppose it was the same thing as many people - she did something she was very passionate about.

“She loved to travel and socialise in London. She never married or had children - her work was her life.”

Although today 57 per cent of the people entering medical school are women, Elizabeth believes that there is a need for organisations like MWF.

She says: "When I trained I was one of only nine women in a class of 90 men in 1958 at St Mary’s. While I was there even to put one’s head round the door of the men’s common room resulted in shouts of out! Out! Out! Accompanied by table thumping.

"Nowadays working mothers face a lot of problems. My daughter-in-law is juggling being a mum and working, as I did, and it’s not easy without more flexible hours and the chance to work part time.”

“Things have improved in the profession but the MWF is still relevant for women doctors today. There are still issues, such as a need to get more women on the board of British Medical Association and British Medical Council.”