McIlroy, Dame Anne Louise (1877–1968), professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, was born at Lavin House, Loughguile, Co. Antrim, eldest of four daughters of James McIlroy, doctor and JP, and Anna McIlroy (née Hamilton). She was educated in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, and was the first woman to graduate in medicine from Glasgow University, MB, Ch.B. (1898), MD (1900) with commendation, D.Sc. (1910) and LM (Dubl.) (1901). After postgraduate study in London, Berlin, and Vienna, she returned to Glasgow and held house appointments at several hospitals before being appointed assistant surgeon to the female Lock Hospital, and was subsequently appointed (1906–10) gynaecological surgeon to the Victoria Infirmary, Glasgow, and senior assistant (1911–14) to the Muirhead professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Glasgow University.
On the outbreak of the first world war, she offered her services to the War Office but was rejected on the grounds that battlefields were no place for women. Undaunted, she joined Scottish Women's Hospitals Foreign Service, and as a member of the Girton and Newnham unit was appointed surgeon in charge (médécin chef) of a mobile hospital, accommodating 200 patients under canvas, near Troyes, France, under the control of the French war office. In 1915, as chief medical officer of the unit, she accompanied the French expeditionary force (Armée d' Orient) and established a field hospital first in Serbia and later in Salonika (Thessalonika), Greece, caring for 500 patients in huts and tents. Responding to the need for rehabilitation of the wounded, her proposal (1917) for an orthopaedic department was realised when the Calcutta Orthopaedic Centre (named after the source of funding) was opened (August 1918). Her unit was well organised and she was a popular personality, ‘whose charm and tact never cease’ (Leneman, 192). She subsequently organised the transference of the unit to Belgrade after having found a suitable building, which became known as the Elsie Inglis Memorial Hospital (1919). She then joined the RAMC as a surgeon in the 82nd General Hospital in Constantinople (Istanbul). For her war service she was awarded the Croix de guerre avec Palme (1916), an OBE (1920), and the order of St Sava of Serbia; she published From a balcony on the Bosphorus (1924) describing her experiences.
After demobilisation, her career – unlike that of many of her female medical colleagues – was advanced: she gained the distinction of becoming the first female medical professor in England, and the first professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at London University (1921–34), when a chair was established at the London (Royal Free Hospital) School of Medicine for Women with a maternity department of sixty-eight beds. An able administrator, a shrewd clinician, and an inspiring teacher, she overcame difficulties and founded a successful department, which pioneered major advances in the care of patients, methods of research, and the education of medical students. She founded (1921) the SWH Association of the RFH to raise funds and the Queen Mary Building was opened (1928) for the reception of gynaecological patients. Created DBE (1929), she was elected a foundation fellow of the RCOG (1929), and member (1932) and fellow (1937) of the RCP (Lond.). She also served as surgeon to the Marie Curie Hospital for Women and was president of the Maternity and Child Welfare Group of the Medical Offices of Health.
A fine public speaker, she held strong opinions and was fearless in expressing them. She stimulated public debate on birth control at a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society of London (July 1921) when she called on the medical profession to overcome its reticence and take full responsibility for providing reliable methods of contraception and informed advice to patients. While appreciating the need for birth control in specific medical and eugenic circumstances, she had grave reservations about its general use: she feared that a reduced birth rate would lead to the weakening of the British empire and stressed the unreliability and dangers of contraception; she warned that contraceptives would bring not greater freedom for women but ‘worse slavery in sexual matters for they will remain the instruments of men's uncontrolled desires’ (McIlroy, Practitioner, 34). Marie Stopes (1880–1958) carried out a survey (1922) of British medical schools and found that McIlroy's unit was the only one which was prepared to discuss contraception with medical students. In the famous 1923 libel trial on birth control, McIlroy gave evidence against Stopes, who in 1926 (apparently in revenge) publicised the fact that she had been able to obtain at McIlroy's out-patient clinic what McIlroy had called ‘the most harmful method of contraception she had encountered’ (Box, 27).
McIlroy retired from her chair (1934) in order ‘to gain a few years of freedom’ (Wolstenholme, 315), practised from Harley St., and was consultant to several institutions. Author of the textbook Toxaemias of pregnancy (1936), she contributed the chapter on ‘Diseases of women’ to Agnes Savill and E. C. Warner (ed.) Savill's system of clinical medicine (11th ed. 1939) and articles to professional journals; she had a special interest in asphyxia in the new-born and in the relief of pain in childbirth, being one of the first to insist that analgesia and anaesthesia should be offered to every woman in labour. On the outbreak of the second world war, she helped to organise the emergency maternity services as consultant to Buckingham county council; working tirelessly, though hampered by limited equipment and black-outs, she organised an efficient system and was senior obstetrician to the Fulmer Chase Maternity Hospital for Officers’ Wives.
Distinguished by being the first woman to receive an hon. D.Sc. from QUB (1931), she was subsequently awarded a D.Sc. (Lond.) (1934), and was the first woman medical graduate to receive an hon. LLD (Glasgow) (1935). She was elected president of the Medico-Legal Society of London, vice-president of the section of obstetrics and gynaecology (1922, 1930, 1932) of the British Medical Association, 1932), was a member of its representative body (1936–9) and its council (1938–43), and was the first woman to be elected as president of the prestigious Metropolitan Branch (1946); she was also president of the Section of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and an hon. fellow of the Liverpool Medical Institute.
An amusing hostess, she gave memorable parties. Her charm and striking presence are well portrayed in the portrait by John Singer Sargent in the Royal Free Hospital medical school, where a gynaecological ward has been named in her memory. She never married and spent her last years of retirement with her sister, Dr Janie Hamilton McIlroy (fl. 1898–1967), a well known ophthalmic practitioner, at Little Turnberry, Girvan, Ayrshire. She died (8 February 1968) in a Glasgow hospital, and her cremated remains rest in the family grave in the presbyterian churchyard, Ballycastle, Co. Antrim.