Partner Elizabeth Robins
24 Montpelier Cres, Brighton BN1 3JJ, UK
Octavia Wilberforce (January 8, 1888 – December 19, 1963) was an English physician who made a medical career despite opposition from her parents, with support from Elizabeth Robins, whom she met in 1909. Elizabeth Robins lived with Octavia Wilberforce from 1908 until she returned to the US in 1940. Unlike the mass of women who had female partners during the period 1890-1960, there is information about a fascinating group of pioneering women doctors in Britain: there are biographies and auto-biographies, appearances in contemporary reminiscences and surveys of successful women, obituaries and entries in the Dictionary of National Biography and Who's Who. These particular women — Louisa Martindale, Louisa Aldrich-Blake, Flora Murray, Octavia Wilberforce and their partners — formed a relatively cohesive group united by their common profession of medicine and by geographical location, social class, and strong ties of friendship and respect. However, while there is a relative profusion of material charting their lives, its emphasis is on their professional, rather than their personal, lives. It is these women's careers as doctors, the hospitals in which they worked, the practices they built up, the research articles that they wrote, in essence the contribution that they made to medicine, that is the focus of interest. Octavia Wilberforce was a friend and neighbour of Louisa Martindale.
When Wilberforce's father not only refused to pay for her studies, but disinherited her for pursuing them, Robins and other friends provided financial and moral support until she became a physician. While some have conjectured that Robins and Wilberforce were romantically involved, such insinuation has never been supported by the considerable scholarly material available about both women, nor is it born out in their own copious written material. All evidence points to Robins and Wilberforce enjoying a relationship much like that of mother and daughter. In her declining years she developed a friendship with Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Dr Wilberforce, the great-granddaughter of William Wilberforce, the British emancipator of slaves, looked after Robins until her death in 1952, just months shy of her 90th birthday.
Wilberforce was in general practice in Brighton, and ran a women's shelter near Henfield. She treated Virginia Woolf's mental illness, near the end of Woolf's life. She was also friends with multiple members of the Bloomsbury Group
Octavia Margaret Wilberforce was the daughter and eighth child of Reginald Garton Wilberforce (1838–1914), son of Samuel Wilberforce, and his wife, Anna Maria Denman (died 1938), daughter of Richard Denman; her great-grandfather was Thomas Denman, 1st Baron Denman and her paternal great-grandfather was William Wilberforce. She was born at Lavington House, Petworth, Sussex, and had little format education. She came out as a débutante in 1907.
Wilberforce met Elizabeth Robins in 1909. In 1910 she took one of the family's maids to hospital, and met Louisa Martindale, an influential contact. Her parents planned for her to marry Charles Buxton, son of Sydney Buxton, 1st Earl Buxton, but the match was against her wishes, and she refused him. Instead, she entered the London School of Medicine for Women, in 1913, beginning seven years of study, qualifying in 1920.
With her father refusing her financial support, and disinheriting her, Wilberforce relied mainly on Robins and Lord Buxton. On qualifying, she worked as house physician to Wilfred Harris at St Mary's Hospital, London.
From 1923 Wilberforce was in general practice in Brighton, retiring in 1954. Robins met Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1928, at the award ceremony for the Femina - Vie Heureuse Prize; she had known Leslie Stephen, Virginia's father. The Woolfs came to know Wilberforce, who lived with Robins in Brighton, on a social basis at this point.
A social call for tea by Wilberforce to the Woolfs at Monk's House, Rodmell on 9 December 1940 became a consultation when Leonard Woolf involved Wilberforce in her professional capacity. Wilberforce subsequently advised Virginia, on the lines of her treatment of exhausted women at Backsettown, a farmhouse belonging to Robins. On 27 March 1941 Leonard drove Virginia to consult Wilberforce in Brighton; she advised complete rest, on the basis of a physical examination. Virginia Woolf committed suicide the following day.
Octavia Wilberforce died on 19 December 1963. She died at the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children, founded and supported by old allies Dr Louisa "Lulu" Martindale, Gordon Holmes, Lady Rhondda, Dr Louisa Aldrich-Blake – and herself.
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