Vignette: pioneering family planning practitioner and sex therapist Helena Rosa Wright

Allan Gaw recounts the life and career of this unconventional physician

BORN in late-Victorian London, the daughter of a Polish-Jewish immigrant, Helena Rosa Lowenfeld said she wanted to be a doctor from the age of six. Against her middle-class family’s wishes, she went on to study at the London School of Medicine for Women (now part of the UCL Medical School). Her father, still opposed to her career choice but hopeful that she might see sense, said that if she left university and gave the London Season a try for a year, he would withdraw his objection. She agreed to the deal, but after the year went back to medical school and graduated MB, BS in 1915.

During her career, she was in turn a junior civilian surgeon in a military hospital, a gynaecologist and missionary in China, a family planning practitioner and sex therapist in London and founder member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. She was also an esteemed educator and outspoken champion of contraception throughout her long life. Indeed, she worked closely with Marie Stopes, whom she had first met in 1918 and whose handbook Wise Parenthood, she read in manuscript and claimed to have taken out “all the nonsense”. It is perhaps testament to both her conviction and her powers of argument and persuasion that in 1930 she addressed the Lambeth conference of the Church of England, persuading the assembled bishops to give modified approval to the use of contraceptives within marriage.

In 1929, in addition to her work in two London family planning clinics, Wright setup in private practice to advise those who were “too shy or embarrassed to visit a clinic”. She continued this practice until her 89th year in 1975, by which time she had cared for some 20,000 patients. During this period she developed her own approach to women’s sexual problems and, unconventionally for the time, counselled that her patients should take responsibility for their own arousal and satisfaction, emphasising the importance of clitoral stimulation.

In the 1930s, the term sex therapist was unknown, but Wright is now retrospectively regarded as one of the earliest practitioners in this field. Her first work on this topic, published in 1930, was called The Sex Factor in Marriage and its success meant three printings within the first six months. In 1935, she also wrote a handbook for patients, entitled Birth control: advice on family spacing and healthy sex life. She was driven by a desire to help women plan their pregnancies and enjoy their sex lives and to achieve what she called “positive health” as a result. This approach has been regarded by some as an early form of well-women clinic.

She was also keen to address what she saw as a significant unmet need in the inter-war years. The atrocities of the Great War had not only claimed the lives of thousands, but had left many of the men who returned home traumatised and impotent. Wright claimed that she had hundreds of married women patients who were desperately seeking to become pregnant, but whose husbands were unable to father children. Wright allegedly addressed this need with a simple solution. She found a willing and virile young man called Derek who would serve as a surrogate. Between them they provided a secret fertility service, and Derek is said to have discretely visited around 500 of Wright’s patients between 1916 and 1950, leaving 496 pregnant.

As well as arranging for women to become pregnant, Wright made no secret of the fact that she had also arranged for illegal abortions since the 1940s. As a result, she was the subject of a police enquiry in 1947. In the 1950s, she was also instrumental in arranging the adoptions of unwanted illegitimate children. This brought her again into conflict with the authorities and in 1968 she was prosecuted. Although she pleaded guilty, she was given an absolute discharge. Throughout her life she was out of step with societal norms and establishment mores, but far from this causing her concern she was proud of saying: “Today’s cranks are tomorrow’s prophets”.

Her attitudes to sex were liberal and outspoken. Her own marriage to a fellow surgeon was open, and she strongly advocated pre-marital sex and extramarital affairs at a time when such things were considered by much of society as immoral. She expressed these views plainly in her final book in 1968, Sex and Society: a New Code of Sexual Behaviour.

In her obituary, the BMJ described her as “the ‘mother’ of family planning in the UK”. Although Wright was first and foremost a doctor, she would probably not have objected to the maternal description. She fought hard through a lifetime of work to improve women’s health and is said to have referred affectionately to her many patients as her “chicks”.

Dr Allan Gaw is a writer and educator in Glasgow

SOURCES

  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • BMJ, 3 April 1982.
  • Spectator 3 August 2013