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The Medical Profession for Women 

September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


You know the story, how Eve ate the fruit of the “tree of knowledge; “not because she was particularly fond of apples, but in the literal wording — “when woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant for the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof and did eat, and gave to her husband and he did eat.” We have always had a secret satisfaction in the knowledge that it required Satan himself, the strongest of known powers for evil, to tempt Eve in the first place, and he, in his Satanic ingenuity, could do so only through her desire for wisdom, not curiosity, the story says, knowledge, which is quite a different matter. There is no thirst equal to that of inheritance, and this desire for wisdom, for growth, could no more be extinguished than could the covering of the seed deep in the earth deprive it of life. It finally struggles upward to find its proper elements of light, air, and sunshine — its world; finds, too, that the depth of covering and obstacles overcome have served as truest friends, giving firmness of root and greater possibilities of broader development. We, in the year 1893, with its privileges of education, its progressive conceptions of equality and justice, can have but a faint idea of struggles and martyrdom of the early crusaders along these lines. Susan B. Anthony says: “Even little children were taught to believe that I had hoofs and horns.” We say, God bless her! To such women, strong of purpose, strong to bear the scorn of the world, if need be, with eyes fixed upon the future, with hearts stayed upon the God of justice, they pressed firmly on through the forest of public opinion, and the brambles of public prejudice, over the rocks of cruel criticism, blazing the pathway for us to follow. It was natural that woman should choose the line of education which nature had best prepared her by taste and natural talent to follow. But where were the schools to give her this education? We can scarcely believe that the first school for higher education of women was established in 1819 and 1820, Mount Holyoke and Oberlin in 1837. There were the same fears for the influence upon women of these schools and seminaries, as we find later in regard to their entrance into the medical profession. There has been no line of effort or pathway of progress more difficult to follow, than for woman to obtain entrance into this one of the learned professions. Her natural ability as nurse, companion, friend; her deftness of touch, quickness of perception, patience through long suffering; these and many other qualifications which made her peculiarly fitted for the position were as naught to overcome custom, that dragon to progress, and prejudice,  that most difficult of all foes to overcome. Said one of the prominent professors in the medical world, now holding a chair in one of the eastern colleges, “History, physiology, and the general judgment of society, unite in a negative of woman’s fitness for the medical office.” In the Buffalo Medical Journal, 1869, is found among its editorial, the following: “If I were to plan with malicious hate the greatest curse I could conceive for woman: if I would estrange them from the protection of women and make them so far as possible loathsome and disgusting to men, I would favor this so-called reform, which proposes to make doctors of them.” This was in 1869, less than twenty-five years ago. We trust this editor has taken the position of the wise man, who always changes his mind when he finds that his conclusions have been based upon false conceptions. We hope that he is alive today to see that his prophesy has failed utterly of its fulfillment. The curse which he feared has proved a blessing both to men and women. Why should the office of physician make women “loathsome and disgusting to men?”

The modesty and sense of propriety, which, in their opinion, should forever keep us from the halls of medical colleges where we may study with all grave and reverend feeling the mysteries of these bodies of ours, which are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and which can only inspire us with awe, and a more firm belief in the wisdom and love of our Creator. While this type of person is filled with consternation at the thought of woman as student and physician, there seems never to have entered into his masculine brain the possibility of woman’s objection to lay bare all her secrets and sufferings, and to receive the administrations necessary at his hands. Custom has so long given him these privileges that he cannot easily adapt himself to any change. It was said, too, that the result of woman’s medical education would be a lowering of her moral nature. This also has proved untrue.

It is said, also, that woman has not sufficient physical strength to endure the demands of the life of the physician. This also is fallacy. In reply to questions sent out to large numbers of women in the profession, the universal answer has been “health better than before entering the profession.” Many of them add: “I attribute it to the constant tonic of fresh air.” To be sure it is a laborious life, so is that of the society woman, with far less mental compensation. Work seldom kills; to each of its victims can be counted ten killed by discontent, born of too much time, and too little definite aim and purpose in life. It is well known that the Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily, were the pioneers in medical education. This was in 1845. There was no college willing to admit a woman, and not until 1849 did the elder sister graduate. A Boston journal at that time published an article in which we find this sentence” “The ceremonies of graduating Miss Blackwell at Geneva may well be called a farce. The profession was quite too full before.” Even this criticism did not put a stop to the whole business, as evidently this cynic expected it would. Think of the crowded condition of the profession having added to its numbers one lone woman. It was the beginning of a new era. What had been done could be done again. It is interesting to note the courage and perseverance of these women. Dr. Susan B. Edson was the entering wedge to open the doors of the Cleveland Homœpathic College. She graduated in 1854. Says the “Woman’s Tribune: “This college would not sell its scholarships to women.” It was owing on the construction of its new building which it could not pay, and the creditor insisted on having a scholarship before he turned over the keys of the building. This scholarship he sold to Miss Edson, who became thereby entitled to enter. They had a faculty meeting over her, and decided that she could not enter the following year, but she informed then that she should be there. “Well,” said the president, “it will not be very pleasant for you.” “That is your lookout,” said Miss Edson; “If the men who come here to study medicine cannot treat a woman decently here, they are not fit to treat them elsewhere. If I live I shall be here.” When the authorities found out that she could not be frightened away, they admitted a few others who applied later. Dr. Edson was for years the physician of President Garfield and his family, and “was in constant attendance upon him during his last  illness, though he was under the surgical care of six other physicians.” She also “introduced to the United States the first Chinese baby of rank born in this country.” There are now thirty-six medical colleges which admit mixed classes, and five medical schools exclusively for women, besides a school of pharmacy for women at Louisville, Ky. All this since 1849, when one woman was too great a crowd for the Boston editor. He has probably gone long since, to the country where, if present indications are at all reliable, he will find the majority of its inhabitants women. What are the qualifications necessary for a woman to be successful in the profession? We can only give a few of them.

First, energy and courage, self reliance, great perseverance, firmness, love for scientific truths, dignity above and beyond all true womanliness. There was never greater mistake made than in thinking one’s influence greater, or that it is in any sense necessary, to become masculine or mannish when entering upon any line of public work. The exact reverse is true. We can neither afford to create prejudice nor offend good taste by being ill-mannered or ill-bred. To hold the confidence and respect of both good men and good women we must not only avoid evil in all forms, but even the appearance of evil. Each one must prove her ability by doing better work than her brother practitioner to receive the same credit. Does she lose a patient, nine out of ten of the neighbors and friends will say, or think, if too courteous to express their opinion, you should have known better than to have employed a woman. Does her brother physician lose half a dozen in the same neighborhood, there are grateful words of how he stood by them to the last; of how peculiar were the complications of disease, and the impossibility of understanding the dispensations of providence. Unjust, do you say? Yes, but it will grow less so as the years go by. For already it is becoming noticeable that women do not lose their patients as frequently or in as large a per cent as do men. This is easily accounted for when we pause to consider the facts and reason to natural conclusions. Men too frequently drift into the profession. The father, or brother, or uncle, is a doctor, and it is easy to read with them, and so they drift, as we say, into the medical profession without thought of special fitness, or special taste, or qualification. Not so with the woman seeking this avocation. Truly to her must there be a distinct call, an overwhelming must. There is no ease or drifting to her. She must be the woman who has pride of excelling, the pride of standing at the head, who will have the best and do the best or nothing. Who has the courage of her convictions, who knows no defeat. This is the type of woman who comes into the profession because nature, which is our most imperative councilor, has been her teacher; because she knows that suffering womanhood can be better understood by women than it ever can be by men. Theory and experience are widely different in practical results. The woman understands at once, from a woman’s knowledge and woman’s standpoint, that the man fails to get from books or theory, and cannot experience in himself. The prejudice against women among the men of the profession is fast dying out in college and class room; at the bedside and in our medical societies we are accorded every help and encouragement, every courtesy and equality. It is only occasionally that we meet one of the ancient type, and he impresses us with a feeling of amusement rather than one of resentment. It is said that women are nervous and fail in emergencies. This is a libel upon the sex. No greater acts of heroism have ever been shown to the world than those performed by women. It is my experience and observation that sex has nothing to do whatever with the matter of coolness in emergency. I have seen extremely nervous men in the profession, and women who, for calmness, might have stepped from the pedestal of the marble statue. Knowledge is the basis of self-reliance. The man or woman who knows what to do and does it, knows also that they have nothing to fear either from public criticism or self-accusation, whatever the results may be.

In a medical journal we read, not long since, two articles, both upon women as physicians and surgeons. The editor must have had a fine sense of humor, placing them, as he did, upon consecutive pages of his journal. The first stated certain facts regarding some operations performed, then added words of praise and thanksgiving that “the time had come when women coming to the hospital or clinic could there meet women as physician and surgeon, standing side by side as equals with the men in the profession, thus taking away much of the fear and dread which every woman must feel being in hands of men only during her unconscious helplessness. Now woman was there as operator or assistant, with deft touch, kindly encouragement, gentle womanly ministration, although thoroughly scientific and strong to do her duty.” The pages following were also in regard to her position as physician. The writer, a man, as in the former article, said that “while women have proven themselves capable, they had also proved to be utterly heartless, and without pity or sense of care and gentleness;” that they were “far less cautious in inflicting pain,” and ended by a most solemn warning to all women to “avoid the sex professionally, unless they expected and wish rough handling.” Here were two men speaking from their respective standpoints — the one of elderly years and long experience, a firm friend of woman, and one who has done much to place her in the position which she holds today in the profession. The other, a young man, with probably a rival whom he wished to annihilate. Possibly he had met one who did not honor her calling. Even among the disciples of our Lord there was one who failed utterly in his professions. We do not take him as a type, however, of the other eleven. Women do not ask favors, they expect criticism. They do not ask leniency, but they do ask justice and fair dealing. Taking the same course of study — passing the same examinations, standing, with but few exceptions, at the head of her classes, compelling by her hard-earned success the admiration of both faculty and classmates — woman demands only fair play, at the hands of both men in the profession and the public at large. She should have, too, in all state and public institutions where women and children are confined, the first positions as physician in charge. The conditions unearthed in some of our insane asylums, so monstrous as to defy, almost, our belief in possibilities, would be made impossible did we have women as physicians and attendants, as we should have. In our police stations, our jails and prisons, wherever we find women degraded, poverty-stricken or diseased, there should we find women by their side as physician. We are so frequently told that women should not stand by each other, do not trust each other, and then when we ask that she may be placed in positions where she may prove this assertion untrue, they are refused her. These congresses, meeting as they have, day after day, and month after month, have been one great object lesson of the fallacy of this saying.

Believing most thoroughly in womanhood and womankind, proud of my sisters in the profession and the business world, you will accept kindly, I trust, one bit of criticism which I have to offer, some of our business and professional women; that is, in regard to the use of our names. Think of Susan B. Anthony as “Susie” or Harriet Beecher Stowe as “Hattie” Beecher Stowe. Would our peerless Frances Willard seem quite as dignified as “Fannie?” Had Abigail Adams lived in our day we hope she would not have been “Abbie,” or that Martha Washington would have been “Mattie.” We have grave fears, however, and feel thankful that they got safely into another world before losing the plain but dignified names which always convey a sound of strength and sturdy independence. Personally, we see no necessity for the woman in the profession to use the whole name unless they so wish. The initials only are sufficient for men — why not for women? Let me make this plea, then, for greater appreciation of the small things which go to make up the success of our business life, one of which, by no means the smallest, is a more dignified standard for the names which we bear, and which we all hope to hand down to posterity as honored, worthy a place among those remembered as having done something to lessen the sum total of human suffering, and to have made broader the pathway and brighter the light shining upon woman’s work. That work, in its many departments, has received an impetus by these congresses, held during this never-to-be-forgotten year, which in their results can never be measured. We have taken great strides in learning, in this world-wide touch with humanity, that “all mankind is kin,” learned that we have one common interest, and that “from one blood was made all nations of the earth.” To this great American republic, founded upon principles of justice and freedom for all good, must we give the no small honor of first placing woman with equal education, equal rights and equal privileges in the medical profession. Here, with a purpose unfaltering, a will unchanging and a faith undying, does she stand, to work for the betterment of humanity and add what she may to the sum of human happiness.



Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 268-272.