Dame Josephine Barnes ranks among the leading obstetricians and gynaecologists of her generation, and is one of the foremost champions of women’s health of the twentieth century. She is remembered as a woman who was infallibly courteous yet immovably devoted to the causes of reducing infant mortality, protecting a woman’s right to choose and offering better cancer care for women.
Dame Josephine came to study at OHS having previously been unhappy at several boarding schools, and even attempting to run away on a periodic basis. At OHS, she was happier; as one obituary notes, ‘Within the exceptional, self-directed learning ambience of Oxford High School for Girls in the 1920s, she took up science, decided on a career in medicine and rejected her family’s long-treasured Methodism stretching back to Wesley. The hockey skills that were to bring her three Oxford blues also began to develop’.
“I arrived at the school in 1925 just in time for the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary. The school was benevolently presided over by an outstanding Headmistress, Miss Haig Brown. We were not particularly conscious of discipline, though there must have been some, and I can only remember that we were not allowed to talk on the staircase.”
Having thus opted (aged 13) to become a doctor, Dame Josephine left OHS in 1930 to read Medicine at LMH, gaining a first in physiology. She went on to complete her clinical training at University College Hospital, London, in 1937, and it was here that Barnes decided to specialise in gynaecology, crediting one particularly inspiring professor for much of the zeal she went on to demonstrate.
She worked in a number of GP surgeries and hospitals before returning to head the obstetrics unit at UCH (1947-52) and became surgeon to the Marie Curie hospital (1947-67). In 1954 she was appointed to Charing Cross Hospital, as the first female consultant gynaecologist.
Throughout her life she championed the cause of women and sat on many national committees including Pain-Free Labour (1947), the Lane Committee (1971 – 1973), and the Warnock Committee (1981). She still found time within her busy life to contribute in many other ways, which included the Medical Defence Union, being its President in 1966. Other Presidencies to which ‘Dame Jo’ was elected include the Women’s National Cancer Control Campaign (1974 – 1995), Vice-President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (1974 – 1975), and then President of the BMA (1979 – 1980).
She was appointed DBE in 1974, Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1977 and Fellow of the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care in 1994. In November 1999, she was awarded an Honorary DSc from London University, although sadly she passed away before she could attend the award ceremony.
Voraciously well-read and a keen traveller, Dame Josephine was also a Friend of the English Pocket Opera Company and a Guardian of Westminster Abbey. She is remembered as a woman of immense energies and principle, as well as humour and loyalty, who possessed that rare gift of the ‘common touch’ which meant so much to patients and colleagues, but above all to all women, whatever their role in society.
“My recollections (of OHS) are entirely rewarding of a happy life, an innocent one, and yet one full of promise and future achievement.”