Dr Hannah Hedwig Striesow
Receiving the Outstanding citizen award in 2001 from Newham Council, Hanna Hedwig Striesow (nee Kohn) is still remembered for her services and dedication to the Newham Community. As one of the first female GPs to practise in Newham in 1950, and continuing to work tirelessly as a full-time Doctor until she was 81, Hedwig Striesow is a truly inspirational figure who defied the barriers of both age and gender.
However, Hedwig’s journey to success is perhaps even more remarkable. Growing up in northern Bavaria, her journey to becoming a doctor was by no means plain sailing- and yet this did not phase her. In an interview, she explained how she ‘grew up in a boy’s school’ and was ‘one of seven girls’ which made her simply forget that she was a girl. In a society increasingly oppressed by Nazi ideology, Hedwig trained as a doctor in Halle, but was unable to receive her MD since she was Jewish. Also prohibited from practising as a doctor, she worked as an assistant dental surgeon in Hamburg until 1936, when she moved to England. For seventeen years she worked as a nurse at the London Jewish Hospital, and then moved to Lingfield Hospital in Surrey. Without British qualifications she was still, unable to practise as a doctor. Nevertheless, she embraced the opportunity and would later remark that it was her work as a nurse that made her a ‘better doctor’, since she could get on with people from all walks of life and ‘swear like them’ too. ‘I could say, ‘Bloody hell, I don’t want to deal with that!’
Hedwig’s indefatigable energy gave her the reserves to flourish in her medical career and successfully raise a family at the same time. Having secretly married Hans Striesow in late 1939 (nurses were not permitted to marry), by 1949 she was finally able to set up her own medical practise in Forest Gate whilst also bringing up her two young sons. For Hannah, medicine was her calling (Berufung), not simply a profession (Beruf). Hedwig was a strong supporter of home births, in tune with the wishes of her patients, and she was a key figure in establishing GP delivery units at local maternity homes. In addition to her busy life as a GP, she also served as a police surgeon for thirty-six years, working with victims of violent crime, child abuse and rape. An excellent listener, Hedwig believed that successful treatment was not just a matter of medicine. Her flair for making and keeping friendships, and for loving her family come across in the wonderful spark that she had in life. In the Guardian’s obituary for her in 2009, it described her life and work as ‘repay[ing] her adopted country a thousand-fold for the refuge it had provided.’