Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ayrton, Matilda Chaplin

AYRTON, MATILDA CHAPLIN, M.D. (1846–1883), one of those medical students to whose energy Englishwomen are indebted for their existing opportunities of studying and practising medicine, was born at Honfleur in 1846. Her maiden name was Matilda Chaplin. After devoting herself to art for some years, she commenced in 1867 the study of medicine, which she pursued unceasingly until her death. She spent two years at the London Medical College for Women; and having passed the preliminary examination at Apothecaries' Hall in 1869, she presented herself for the later examination, but was refused admission on the ground of her sex. Thereupon she at once proceeded to Edinburgh, and matriculated there. But here again instruction in the highest branches of medicine was denied her. The aid of the law was invoked to reverse the decision of the authorities, but judgement was in 1872 finally given against women students. Mrs. Ayrton took, however, high honours in anatomy and surgery at the extramural examinations held in 1870 and 1871 at Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh. In 1871, when she found the chief medical classes in England and Scotland closed to her, she resolved to complete her education at Paris, where every facility was afforded her. The university of Paris recognised her abilities by bestowing upon her the degrees of Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres. But, although studying regularly at Paris, Miss Chaplin did not sever her connection with Edinburgh, and still attended some of the classes open to her there. In 1872 she married Mr. William Edward Ayrton, an Edinburgh student, and a distinguished pupil of Sir William Thomson. Early in the following year she obtained a certificate in midwifery from the London Obstetric Society, the only medical qualification then obtainable by women in England, and shortly afterwards accompanied her husband to Japan, where he had been appointed to a professorship in the Imperial College of Engineering. In Japan Mrs. Ayrton pursued some interesting anthropological researches, and opened a school for native midwives, in which she lectured herself, with the aid of an interpreter. In 1877 signs of consumption made themselves apparent, and Mrs. Ayrton returned to Europe. In 1879 she took the degree of M.D. at Paris, and presented as her thesis the result of her Japanese studies, which was printed under the title of 'Recherches surles dimensions générales et sur le développement du corps chez les Japonais' (Paris, 1879). Later Mrs. Ayrton became a licentiate of the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland, and, although the only female candidate, came out first in the examination. In 1880 Mrs. Ayrton lived in London, chiefly studying diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital. But her health was rapidly breaking down. She was compelled for the next two years to winter abroad, but at the hospital of Algiers during one winter, and in the physiological laboratory at Montpelier during another, she continued her studies. Mrs. Ayrton died in London on 19 July 1883, aged 37.

From the time of her journey to Japan Mrs. Ayrton contributed to the 'Scotsman' and other periodicals a large number of articles on very various topics, including Japanese politics and customs, and the educational problems of the West. She published in London in 1879 a little book entitled 'Child Life in Japan,' which was illustrated from her own sketches. Mrs. Ayrton always took a lively interest in attempts to improve the educational opportunities and social position of women. She actively aided to establish a club for women students in Paris, and helped to organise the Somerville Club for women in London.

[Memorial notice by Eliza Orme, in the Englishwomans Review for 15 Aug. 1883; Les Femmes et les Professions Libérales en Angleterre, by Professor Charles Remy, in Le XIXe Siècle, 23 Aug. 1883; information from Prof, W. E. Ayrton.]

S. L. L.