WHEN Dr Helen Boyle opened her first surgery in 1897, women had only been allowed to qualify as doctors for two decades.

Before then, pioneers had to bend the rules to weave their way into the medical profession.

Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had qualified as an “apothecary” in 1865 by using a loophole immediately closed after her, making her Britain’s only female doctor for ten years.

That same year it was discovered Dr James Barry, once the second-most powerful medical officer in the British Army, had been born a woman called Margaret Bulkley.

But it was not until 1876 that women could openly practise medicine.

So when Dr Boyle opened her surgery in Church Road, Hove, 21 years later, she was the first female GP to set foot in the town, alongside practice partner Dr Mabel Jones.

The years leading up to the opening were haunting for her.

The Argus: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first female doctor to openly practice. Photo: Royal Free HospitalElizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first female doctor to openly practice. Photo: Royal Free Hospital

Having moved from Ireland in 1887, she studied in London under the trailblazing Dr Anderson before furthering her knowledge in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Brussels.

But her time in Canning Town Mission Hospital in London’s East End was her most formative experience.

There she saw women in the early stages of mental illness unable to get help, something that profoundly shocked her.

General hospitals would not take in patients with mental illnesses.

But psychiatric hospitals also refused admissions unless they were certified “insane”.

The Argus: Dr Helen Boyle in 1939Dr Helen Boyle in 1939

“I saw mental patients neglected and maltreated until after days, months or years,” she later wrote. “They were turned into the finished product, lunatics, and were certified.

“I saw the impecunious and harassed mother of five with a nervous breakdown after influenza apply for treatment, wait many weary hours and get a bottle and the advice not to worry.

“No hospital would take her because she had no organic disease, no asylum because she was not certified. Never will these early nervous and mental cases be efficiently understood until there are wards in the general teaching hospitals for them.”

Disorders such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder were not regarded as serious enough to treat.

But Dr Boyle thought differently. She believed insanity could be prevented if doctors intervened early. So eight years after setting up her practice in Hove, the pioneering doctor opened Lady Chichester Hospital in Roundhill Crescent, Brighton.

It was the first facility in the country for the treatment of early mental disorders, offering free care to the women in poverty who needed it.

The Argus: Aldrington House in Hove, formerly the Lady Chichester HospitalAldrington House in Hove, formerly the Lady Chichester Hospital

Soon word of her efforts spread.

Patients came from across the British Isles, overwhelming the hospital’s ten beds.

In 1911 Dr Boyle moved the hospital to Brunswick Road before eventually settling in grand Aldrington House nine years later.

To many an elegant villa would not have seemed a convenient place for a hospital.

But as Dr Boyle’s premises grew so did her reputation, gaining her notable clients.

In 1922 she treated eccentric outsider artist Madge Gill, who had suddenly taken an interest in drawing at the age of 38.

The year before the spiritualist had become seriously ill after the stillbirth of her daughter.

The Argus: Dr Boyle's blue plaqueDr Boyle's blue plaque

But Dr Boyle successfully encouraged Ms Gill’s talents while treating her, leading to the artist’s first exhibition a year later.

Though always dedicated to her cause, the doctor juggled a number of posts.

Alongside her surgery and hospital she consulted in London twice a week, co-founded mental health charity Mind, and became the Royal Sussex County Hospital’s first female psychiatrist.

In 1915 she even managed to fit in a spell as a wartime doctor serving in Serbia.

Eventually she settled in Pyecombe village outside Brighton, where she lived with companion Marguerite du Pre Gore Lindsay until her death in 1957.

Her hospital outlived her, remaining open until 1988. But a blue plaque emblazoned on Aldrington House is a reminder of her achievements.