A Woman in Medical School? Surely You Jest!

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The Nefarious History of Motherhood

In 1845, 24 year old Elizabeth Blackwell went to visit a dying friend. While there, the friend remarked, ”If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.”

In fact, that idea had been rankling around the Victorian era. Women’s modesty, you see, meant that examination and treatment by men demeaned them. Add in the “cult of motherhood” that claimed women were naturally nurturing, repositories of all that is good and moral in our society, and it was just a grand idea that there should be women doctors.

Yet that would require male doctors to let them be women doctors. And that wasn’t happening easily. Not only were women meant to be in the home, but their modesty would not allow them to attend medical lectures. It would “unsex” them. Plus, their delicate nervous systems were just too fragile to handle all that book learnin’–it might pull energy from their reproductive organs, resulting in hysteria and other nervous conditions.

[Not to mention that the over-populated field of medicine really didn’t need any more economic competition. There was already a dearth of patients who could afford to pay for treatment. Private, for-profit diploma mills were pumping out unqualified docs right, left and center. Homeopathy, the water-cure, and Thomsonianism, with their emphasis on a kindler, gentler healing (as opposed to mercurials, bloodletting and radical surgery) were stealing more patients. Women docs would just make that worse; plus women were just easier to keep out.]

Undaunted, Elizabeth Blackwell applied to medical schools all over the northeast. She was ignored by most, rejected by many. She did a private apprenticeship with a Quaker physician in Philadelphia, who warned her that she was probably going to have to move to Paris and pretend to be a man to get an education.

Her mentor sent a letter to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York, asking them to accept his protege.

The faculty of Geneva was adamantly opposed to admitting a woman. But they didn’t want to annoy a prominent physician in the area. So they came up with a sly plan. They opted to put it to a vote of the medical students. They, surely, would object to having a woman sit with them. The blame could be shifted to the students, absolving the faculty and allowing them to slip out of the noose.

The medical students listened gravely as the dean explained the physician’s letter and request. He told the men that they would have to unanimously vote to accept the young woman, and the faculty would abide by whatever decision they made.

The students thought it was a joke. The laughed and hooted and voted, “Yes,” throwing up their hats and waving their handkerchiefs. Good fun!

And promptly forgot the whole episode, until a few weeks later a young woman entered with the lecturer, sat down in the gallery, and started taking notes. Elizabeth Blackwell graduated at the top of her class in 1849, proud holder of the first medical degree awarded to a woman in America (and only the second in the modern world–the first being Marie Durocher, New Medical School, Rio de Janeiro, 1834–not to be confused with Catholic Saint Ann-Marie Durocher).

[Okay, maybe the third. There was a German woman, Dorothea Erxleben, who obtained a medical degree in Germany from the University of Halle, 1754. Is 18th c the “modern era?” Besides, she was admitted at the whim of Frederick the Great. When an Emperor asks you to do something, you say, “Yes.” Haven’t decided whether she counts. More besides, Berlin-born Marie Zakrzewska was unable to obtain admittance to med school in Germany in the 1850s–she moved to the States and graduated from Western Reserve in 1856 (the last woman there for 25 years; the male students rebelled).]


They both might have been beaten by Margaret Ann Bulkley, Edinburgh University, 1812. If, that is, she was really a she. Because the person who graduated from Edinburgh University in 1812 was named James Barry.

The niece of prominent Irish artist James Barry, a huge advocate of education for women, she was at the center of a vast conspiracy to get her educated, by hook or by crook. Letters document Margaret’s transformation into Dr. Barry.

After graduation, she/he took a job as an army surgeon, where she/he worked for 46 years and is credited with performing the first successful C-section by a British surgeon (which didn’t happen in Britain; it happened in Capetown). With a reputation for a quick temper (or perhaps consciously emulating the men around her?) she/he killed a man in a duel and managed to make an enemy of Florence Nightingale in Crimea. Her secret was discovered at her death in 1865, when a maid preparing her body for burial sorta noticed what her attending physician had not. The embarrassed army buried him/her quickly and locked away her service records for 100 years.

[The US army could have taken some notes from Dr. Barry’s distinguished service. At the height of WWI, with injuries and bodies pouring in from all sides, the US Armed Forces refused to admit female surgeons. So they went to France, where they earned the Croix de Guerre for grace and service under fire.]

That same year, the Brits were embarrassed again when Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, an unofficial student at Middlesex Hospital (in other words, she paid for the same lectures as her male colleagues but had no hope of recognition or degree), exploited a loophole in the language of the Society of Apothecaries, which mistakenly stated that any PERSON with the appropriate qualifications could sit for their exam. She did (along with 6 men; only three of the group passed), was awarded with a license to practice, and the Apothecaries immediately changed the rules. It was some time before the next wave of British women physicians (and decades before they were officially “licensed”); when they happened, it was largely due to Garrett Anderson.

Little by little, women in medicine made headway. While orthodox medical schools closed ranks quickly (Harvard did not admit women until 1946), the first women physicians set their minds to educating more women physicians, building world-class medical schools for women in the US and Britain that put out students every bit as qualified as the conventional schools, and often quite a bit more competent in women’s diseases.

When the brand new Johns Hopkins Medical School opened in 1893, women were accepted from day one. Other schools scrambled to go co-ed, and women’s medical schools shut down, the victims of their own success.

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