Dr. Matilda Chaplin Ayrton MD (c. 1846 – 19 July 1883) was a British physician. She studied medicine in London, Edinburgh and Paris, pursuing higher studies at the latter's universities. She travelled to Japan, where she opened a school for midwives, and was an author of anthropological studies.
Matilda Chaplin was born at Honfleur, France around 1846. After beginning her studies in art she commenced the study of medicine in 1867, and continued to do so until her death. She spent two years at the Ladies' Medical College, and having passed the preliminary examination at Apothecaries' Hall in 1869, she presented herself for the later examination, but was refused admission on the ground of her gender.
Recognised as one of the heroic 'seven against Edinburgh' women, also known as the Edinburgh Seven, she eventually matriculated at the University of Edinburgh, but was barred from instruction in higher branches of medicine. Legal intervention allowed her to gain high honours in anatomy and surgery at the extramural examinations held in 1870 and 1871 at Surgeons' Hall, Edinburgh, before a judgment in 1872 finally prohibited women students.
In 1871, when she found the chief medical classes in England and Scotland closed to her, she resolved to complete her education at Paris, where every facility was afforded her. The University of Paris recognised her abilities by bestowing upon her the degrees of Bachelier ès-Sciences and Bachelier ès-Lettres. During her studies Chaplin maintained connection with Edinburgh, attending some of the classes open to her there.
In 1872 she married her cousin, the noted scientist William Edward Ayrton, an Edinburgh student, and a distinguished pupil of Sir William Thomson. Early in the following year she obtained a certificate in midwifery from the London Obstetric Society, the only medical qualification then obtainable by women in England, and shortly afterwards accompanied her husband to Japan, where he had been appointed to a professorship in the Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo.
While in Japan, she pursued anthropological researches, and opened a school for Japanese midwives, in which she lectured herself, with the aid of an interpreter. In 1877 symptoms of tuberculosis made themselves apparent, forcing her return to Europe. In 1879 she took the degree of M.D. at Paris, and presented as her thesis the result of her Japanese studies, which was printed under the title of Recherches surles dimensions générales et sur le développement du corps chez les Japonais (Paris, 1879). She became a licentiate of the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland, and, although the only female candidate, came out first in the examination. In 1880 she lived in London, chiefly studying diseases of the eye at the Royal Free Hospital.
But her health was rapidly breaking down, and she was compelled for the next two years to winter abroad, but at the hospital of Algiers during one winter, and in the physiological laboratory at Montpellier during another, she continued her studies. Mrs. Ayrton died in London on 19 July 1883, aged 37.
The Dictionary of National Biography records: "From the time of her journey to Japan Mrs. Ayrton contributed to The Scotsman and other periodicals a large number of articles on very various topics, including Japanese politics and customs, and the educational problems of the West."
She took a keen interest in the Japanese people and never wearied of studying them and their beautiful country. She became more and more interested in the home life of the Japanese and in the pictures and stories which delighted the children of the Mikado's Empire. After her return to England she wrote a book entitled Child Life in Japan which was illustrated from her own sketches.
Mrs. Ayrton always took a lively interest in attempts to improve the educational opportunities and social position of women. She actively aided the establishment of a club for women students in Paris, and helped to organise the Somerville Club for women in London."
Chaplin and Ayrton's daughter was the feminist and author Edith Ayrton, wife of Israel Zangwill and mother of Oliver Zangwill.