A pioneering female surgeonBMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a1457 (Published 03 September 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:cf_raza_cossart
Linda De Cossart is vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons
You entered surgery at a time when female surgeons were rare. Did this ever put you off?
The male tradition didn’t put me off; I always thought it was quite important to use what you had to your advantage. I was well trained and I worked for some supportive people, most of whom were men. I’m quite sure there was some discrimination that went on in the background, but I never felt heavily discriminated against. The competition was great, and I did run into a stumbling block getting the next job, but so did a lot of my male colleagues.
Are there any particular difficulties you have had to overcome during your career?
Just after I got my fellowship to the RCSE [Royal College of Surgeons of England], and I had taken on a research post, I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis. It was a setback and in fact it took me a lot longer to complete my research than planned. Looking back now, if I had been doing a clinical job at that stage, I probably wouldn’t have become a surgeon now because they would have classed me as a wimp. However, being ill influenced a lot of my clinical practice; it helped me grasp a better understanding of being unwell, and the patients’ perspective.
You are featured in the “Six Women Surgeons” portrait collection exhibition currently on display at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. What is the significance of this?
If you have ever been to the RCSE in London, you will notice that there are a lot of portraits on the walls, from the 19th century to the modern day. These portraits are of influential figures in surgery. However there is a significant lack of women in them. The idea of this commissioning is to make a mark for women and recognise their contribution to surgery. The six surgeons in the portraits, including me, are the only six women to be on council, up to 2006, since the RCSE was founded in 1800. Therefore this collection is a landmark in itself. Jane Brettle, the artist who was commissioned to create the portraits, has a specific interest in looking at women in male dominated careers.
Do you have any people who have inspired you?
The people in my life who have influenced me have been good doctors. I have a great belief that surgeons should be good doctors first and technicians next. Certainly within the field of surgery, I have worked for some very good surgeons including Professor Averil Mansfield, who was the first female professor of surgery in the UK and also vice president of the RCSE. I learnt a lot from her; she was always polite and professional, and had a good manner with other people. I was struck by the fact that when she did an aortic aneurysm repair, she would personally ring the next of kin at the end of the operation to update them. My communications with relatives have been influenced by this.
What about the perception that surgeons are poor communicators?
I think you will always get some doctors who communicate well and some who communicate badly; surgeons seem to have acquired a stereotype for being bad communicators. We have the stereotype of being poor communicators through media such as the Carry On films. Even modern parodies characterise surgeons as horrible people. Maybe the stereotype partially comes from surgeons being busy and not seeing communication as their main job.
What is your vision for the college?
There has never been a female president of the RCSE. That would be a significant milestone, but the most important aim for this college for me is to encourage young women surgeons and consultants to keep in mind, as part of their career progression, the idea that they should stand for officer responsibility.
Seventy per cent of medical students are women, yet the number of women entering surgery is still low. What can be done about this?
I think there is no doubt that women should consider a career in surgery, and it is interesting to reflect on the fact that we’re going down the route of a fewer number of working hours. Therefore the problems of working are not like they were 10 years ago; opportunities for women taking part in surgical activities are better than ever. There is no doubt in my mind that women are physically and intellectually capable of being surgeons. People have to see role models and that it is possible.
You are also the author of two books, Cultivating a Thinking Surgeon and Developing the Wise Doctor. What were the reasons behind writing the books?
We were highly aware when we started the project that there was a lack of educational resources in medicine and surgery for developing good medical teachers. The books were written to explore the invisible elements of the doctor’s practice—their ability to demonstrate professionalism and good clinical thinking, their knowledge, how they make good judgments, and their relationships with patients. It was about bringing together all these things, and teaching young doctors how to develop important aspects of their life. In Chester, where I am a vascular surgeon, we have developed a theatre faculty in which we teach a multidisciplinary team of nurses and doctors using the books.
Name: Linda De Cossart
Position: Vice president of the Royal College of Surgeons
Biography: Vascular surgeon for more than 25 years; author of Cultivating a Thinking Surgeon and Developing the Wise Doctor; featured in “Six Women Surgeons,” a new portrait collection displayed at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.
Competing interests: None declared.