Dr Penelope Hewitt: Lost in the ether: missing perspectives within anaesthesia | Association of Anaesthetists

Dr Penelope Hewitt: Lost in the ether: missing perspectives within anaesthesia

Dr Penelope Hewitt: Lost in the ether: missing perspectives within anaesthesia


Dr Penelope Hewitt was born in 1938 in Cheam, Surrey. She started her medical training at Guy's Hospital in London in 1956 when the number of women in leadership or teaching positions was very low. Although she doesn't feel that she experienced any overt discrimination, she does feel that she spent longer in the training grades than her male colleagues, before being appointed as a Consultant Anaesthetist in 1973. She was the first female consultant in any specialty to be appointed at Guy's. Dr Hewitt is now retired and is a member of the committee of the Sutton and District Medical Society.

Listen to the audio recording or read the transcription of the interview.


Time code (approximately)
Point of interest
00:01:13 Dr Hewitt talks about her early life and her parents' careers in medicine.
00:03:20 Her family's economic circumstances, her secondary school and her early interest in medicine, "I wanted to do something useful."
00:04:55 Starting to study medicine at Guy's Hospital, London in 1956 and being advised to take the Conjoint Board exams to qualify early.
00:06:44 Her experience of medical school, "A bit intimidating to start with", there were 20 females in the year of 100 people.
00:08:28 The differences between her experience of medical school and that of her male colleagues, and how she has no memories of overt discrimination
00:10:21 Deciding to become an anaesthetist, "I don't just like the theory, I like being able to do something." 
00:14:43 How the anaesthesia training process has changed significantly during the course of her time as a consultant.
00:17:50 Not being offered promotion to a registrar post probably because "the blue-eyed boys tended to get promoted… they're just not really used to women being promoted. They think you're going to sort of get married and give it up", getting a job at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases. 
00:19:43 The difference between Guy's and the NHND where she was the only anaesthetist, working in the Batten Unit (respiratory care unit), early ways of monitoring vital functions.
00:23:03 Looking back on her career and why she enjoyed it.
00:25:14 The feeling that being a woman probably delayed her promotion, "Because they just weren't used to the idea.”
00:29:40 Female role models, “There weren’t really any females I knew that were in more senior roles”, being the first female consultant in any specialty appointed at Guy’s. 
00:32:01 The qualities that women anaesthetists bring to the specialty, "They're probably quite good at getting on with surgeons rather than having rows with them."
00:33:41 The development of a surgical intensive care unit at Guy's over the course of her career there. 
00:35:20 The extent to which women are represented in the specialty now.
00:38:27 Learning how to give anaesthetics for kidney transplants at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, and then being regarded as the expert on it on returning to Guy's, explanation of haemodialysis.
00:39:44 Her involvement with research into the muscle-relaxant drug pancuronium and its use in patients with renal failure.
00:41:35 Monitoring the effects of anaesthesia on brainwaves in patients undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy.
00:44:38 Restructuring the anaesthetics department at Guy's, "creating a proper academic department", setting up regional advisors, restructuring the training programme
00:48:20 Story of being mistaken for an office worker probably wouldn't have happened "if I'd been a male with a white coat.”
00:49:31 Story of man with hiccups who was instantly cured when she said she was going to take a blood sample from his thigh.
00:54:36 Highlights of her career, working with the European Academy, being Assistant Editor of the European Journal [of Anaesthesiology], getting postgraduates over from Thailand to do their Fellowship in the UK, going to Bangkok run a programme on epidurals and obstetrics. 
00:56:44 The Fondation Européenne d'Enseignement en Anesthésiologie and the exchange of knowledge across Europe.
00:59:01 Working on the committee for clinical exams, making changes to exams, introduction of OSCE (Objective Structured Clinical Examinations), being chairman of the OSCE working party, "Very satisfying". 
01:01:34 Worst moments of her career, patient dying due to staff negligence
01:04:19 Positive changes that have come about for women in the field of anaesthesia, the fact that women are now encouraged at school age to consider medicine as a career.
01:05:51 Advice to young women today who are aiming for a career in medicine.