Leuven names streets and squares after medical role models


Seven women from the history of healthcare have been chosen to have a street or square named after them in Leuven

Health heroines

Leuven is naming seven new streets after female role models from the history of medicine. The aim is to raise the profile of women in the life of the city, and to acknowledge the immense contribution women make to healthcare, now as in the past.

“We think it’s important that female role models are present in the public domain, and street names are an important and visible example of this,” said Lies Corneillie, city councillor responsible for equal opportunities. “Only 3% of the streets in Leuven that are named after a person refer to a woman. That’s a large imbalance, and it has to change.”

The seven streets and squares to be named are all in the Hertogsite, a neighbourhood in Leuven’s historic centre currently being redeveloped after the closure of the old Sint-Pieters hospital.

Where the streets have her name

The earliest of the seven chosen is Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia. Although her charitable work took place in Germany in the 13th Century, she gave her name to the Sint-Elizabethgasthuis on Brusselstraat, Leuven’s oldest hospital.

Next comes Kerstine Liedekens, who in 1481 became the first midwife to be employed by the city of Leuven that is named in records.

Then there is Isala Van Diest (picture above), the first Belgian woman to be registered as a doctor and a campaigner for women’s rights at the end of the 19th century. While born in Leuven, she was forced to study medicine abroad because the city’s medical school only allowed women to become midwives or nurses.

The remaining four women were all active in the 20th century. Jules-Marie Heymans was a doctor and founder in 1939 of the first nursing school in Leuven. Juliette Van der Schueren was a student at the school and later director of the KU Leuven’s nursing school.

Only 3% of the streets in Leuven that are named after a person refer to a woman

- City councillor Lies Corneillie

Augusta Chiwy was a Belgian-Congolese nurse who trained in Leuven and volunteered to operate a first aid post during the Ardennes offensive at the end of the Second World War. And finally, Claire Vellut was an Antwerp-born leprologist who studied in Leuven, but spent most of her working life in India, where she set up a local chapter of the Damien Foundation.

Other steps to redress the gender balance in Leuven include the naming last year of a new bridge over the Vaart after Marie Thumas-Durieux, who ran the cannery company on the Vaart that bore her name, and KU Leuven’s decision to name a renovated auditorium after Emma Vorlat, a professor at the university and its first female vice-rector.

Meanwhile a decision is pending to name the square in front of Leuven’s Wijgmaal train station after Jeanne Dormael. She was a local member of the resistance during the Second World War, who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1945.

Photo: Isala Van Diest, Belgium’s first female doctor