Isabella Forshall was an outstanding pioneer in the development of paediatric surgery, being largely responsible for the establishment of the world’s first neonatal surgical unit at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Hospital in 1953. That she should have achieved this at a time when women faced considerable obstacles in the professions is a testament to her outstanding ability and determination.
She was born in Sussex on 2nd October 1900 to a family of not inconsiderable wealth. Her father, Francis Scrimgeour Hyde Forshall (1869-1944) was a man of ‘independent means’. Her mother, Isabell (1870-1954) had attended Girton College in the 1890s and chose to educate her daughter at home. She thus attended no school at all until entering the London School of Medicine for Women, from which she graduated in 1927.
She was appointed house surgeon at the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital and later at Alder hey Children’s Hospital , working at these hospitals for over 30 years until her retirement in 1965. The war years saw her carry a heavy burden of work as so many male colleagues were serving in the armed forces. After the war she set out to establish a team of paediatric specialists that would promote the speciality on a national (and as it turned out international) level. She was instrumental in encouraging the eminent anaesthetist, Gordon Jackson Rees, to apply his methods to the paediatric field enabling safer and more complex surgical procedures to be carried out.
The opening of the Alder Hey Neonatal Surgical Unit was a transformative initiative which brought Isabella Forshall national and international recognition. In its first six years of its activity the mortality of infants with treatable congenital abnormalities in the Liverpool region fell from 72% to 24%. The Ministry of Health published a report recommending that all regions of the country should set up similar units.
In 1958 she became the second President of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, and in 1959 was elected President of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine. Yet despite having such a distinguished career she was renowned as having no personal ambition, often giving her associates great credit for their part in joint ventures. She was also acutely aware of the wider aspects of a care regime for children, working to reform restrictions on parental visiting and plaving greater emphasis on children’s emotional needs.
She retired to Sussex where she died on10th August 1989, aged 88.
In her early days in Liverpool she lived at 27 Alma Road L17. During the war years she lived at 5 Beeston Grove L19 and then lived for many years at 9A Fulwood Park L17 (which was also later the home of the aforementioned Gordon Jackson Rees).
Isabella Forshaw's home during the 1940s
Her home from the late 1940's until her retirement.
The Wikipedia entry gives a basic account of life and career. Also worth reading are the obituary in the British Medical Journal. However, the best source is a delightful video tribute by Neill Freeman, a fellow surgeon who worked with her at Alder Hey, which can be viewed on Vimeo.
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