Looking Back Over the History of Women in Medicine

Looking Back Over the History of Women in Medicine

Just over 150 years ago that Elizabeth Blackwell, a determined young student, became the first American woman to gain admission to medical school. Yet her acceptance to Geneva Medical College had been a mere accident. The faculty had not wanted to admit women, but desiring the student body’s support, they had put the issues to a vote. Imagine their shock when the class in a joking mood, voted unanimously to accept her. A classmate wrote years later about Blackwell’s first day (Smith, 1911):

” A lady, on his invitation, entered, whom he formally introduced as Miss Elizabeth BlackwellA hush fell upon the class as if each member had been stricken with paralysis. A death-like stillness prevailed during the lecture, and only the newly arrived student took notes. She retired with the professor, and thereafter came in with him and sat on the platform during the lecture.”

Despite a flurry of protests within the medical community, other pioneer women soon followed suit, notably among them Elizabeth’s younger sister, Emily Blackwell, as well as Maria Zakrzewska, Mary Putnam Jacobi, and Ann Preston. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania opened in 1850, the first of several institutions devoted primarily to the medical education of women. In 1857, the Blackwell sisters, along with Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

By the end of the 19th century, 19 women’s medical colleges and 9 women’s hospitals had been established. The struggle for coeducation, however, was initially successful only in a minority of institutions, hampered in large part by the theories of Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke (1874) who proclaimed that women seeking advanced education would develop “monstrous brains and puny bodies [and] abnormally weak digestion.” As Mary Putnam Jacobi wrote (1891), “It is perfectly evident from the records, that the opposition to women physicians has rarely been based upon any sincere conviction that women could not be instructed in medicine, but upon an intense dislike to the idea that they should be so capable.”

This early pioneer generation endured the hard years of study with little support even from their own families and often flagrant discrimination. Sensing that the future of the entire female gender lay upon their shoulders, they worked even more diligently to prove their academic merit.. Many eventually graduated at or near the top of their class. The success of these efforts was reflected most obviously in the impressive standing achieved by women physicians by the end of the 19th century. They constituted 5% of American physicians and numbered over 7,000.

The early 20th century, however, saw a decline in the women’s medical movement, largely the result of multiple influences – – medical education reform, closing of all but one of the women’s medical colleges, the rise of allied health fields such as nursing, public health and social work, and the changing face of medicine itself, becoming more scientific and less humanistic. Furthermore, society in the 1950’s glorified domesticity, placing a women’s primary role as that of homemaker. So in 1949, just 100 years after Elizabeth Blackwell, still only 5.5% of entering students were women. It wasn’t until after the revival of feminism in the 1960’s and the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act (preventing federal funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of gender) that these numbers began to increase significantly. In 1974, 22.4% of new medical school entrants were women; today, that figure has increased to 45.6%.

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