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Woman in Medicine

August 6, 1914 — National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Wilberforce OH


Instead of reading to you a paper on “Tuberculosis and Kindred Diseases”, as alloted [sic] to me on the program for this date, I have taken the liberty of changing my subject to that of “Woman in Medicine”, and I shall give to you, as briefly as I can, the history of woman in the study and practice of medicine, from the early centuries until the present time.

That women have made a record for themselves in medicine is a fact; and that broad-minded men, as historians, have given them a place in the history of medicine, along with their brothers in the profession, is another fact; otherwise I would not be able to prove my first statement, that they have made a record, well worthy of being handed down in history.

The earliest record of women in the practice of medicine is found in sacred history. I refer to their work as given in the Bible, Exodus 1st chapter. Here we find that to women, and to women alone, belonged that branch, or department, of medicine denominated “Obstetrics”, which deals with parturition, the treatment of women and children at the most sacred, and the most important, moment of their lives.

It is recorded of these women, that they feared God. There were, according to Dr. Clark, the commentator, five hundred or more Hebrew women obstetricians in Egypt at that time, although the names of only two have been handed down to us, Shiphrah, and Puah. These women all feared God, and held themselves responsible to Him in the faithful discharge of their duty to their patients. These women feared God rather than man, although that man was a king. All those who are familiar with this portion of the Scriptures, know the results of the work of these God-fearing women.

Dr. James J. Walsh, author of a recent history of medicine, entitled, “Old Time Makers of Medicine”, says: “We are prone in modern times to think that our generation is the first to offer to women any facilities, or opportunities, for education in medicine. We are prone, however, in the same way to consider that a number of things that we are doing are now being done for the first time. As a matter of fact, it is extremely difficult to find any important movement, or occupation, that is not merely a repetition of a previous interest of mankind”.

“The whole education of women we are apt to think of as modern, forgetting that Plato, in his “Republic” insisted as absolutely as any feminist of our times. That women should have the same opportunities for education as men; and at Rome at the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, women occupied very much the same position in social and literary life as our own women of to-day.”

Coming up to early Christian times, during the fourth and fifth centuries, there were many distinguished women physicians, and the names of a few of them have been transmitted to us. Such as Theodosia, at Rome. She was remarkable not only as a physician and surgeon, but also in the fact she suffered martydom [sic] with other Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. Fabiola, is noted because she was the founder of the first hospital in Rome. There are two other names of Greek physicians, Origenia, mentioned by the great surgeon Galen, and Aspasia, mentioned by Aëtius, a distinguished physician and surgeon in his day. We have evidence enough to show that Greek Women physicians were not very rare.

“Women among the Greeks and Romans enjoyed both encouragement and opportunity to study and practice medicine in the early centuries of the Christian era”. And why should this not have been so, when the example and influence of the Great Physician, the emancipator of women in His time. dominated that portion of the world?

We now come to the history of the medieval women physicians, and their very superior opportunities for the study of medicine in the great medical school at Salerno, Italy, where women were admitted on the same terms as men, and given the same thorough advantages as students. It is said: “The best proof of how thorough was the medical education at Salerno, and how much influence it exerted even over public opinion, is to be found in the regulation of the practice of medicine, which soon began, and the insistence on proper training before permission to practice was granted. Three years of preliminary university education, before the study of medicine might be taken up; four years of medical studies proper, before a degree was given, including a special course in anatomy, if surgery were to be practiced; a year of practice with a regularly licensed physician, before a license to practice could be obtained.”

“All this represents an ideal we are now striving after. And all this is so much more advanced than we could possibly have imagined, only that the actual documents are in existence, that most people refuse to let themselves be persuaded, in spite of the law, that it could have meant very much. Especially as regards medical education are they dubious as to conditions at that time. To them, it seems that it could make very little difference how much time was required for medical study or for studies preliminary to medicine, since there was so little to be learned. The age was ignorant, men knew but little, and so very little could be imparted, no matter how much time was taken. This is a common impression, but an utterly false one”.

“The preliminary training, that is, the undergraduate work at the universities then, consisted of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, which embraced grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy.” To this was added metaphysics, and cosmology, in which some biology was studied. This was a thoroughly rounded course in intellectual training. “No wonder Professer [sic] Huxley said, in his inaugural address as Rector of Aberdeen,” “I doubt if the curriculum of any modern university shows so clear and generous a comprehension as to what is meant by culture as this old trivium or quadrivium does.”

“There is no doubt at all about the value of the undergraduate training, nor of the scholarship of the men and women turned out under this system, nor of their ability to concentrate their minds on difficult subjects. Said one of the graduates of this school at Salerno”, “I cannot say too much for the training given in this, the first of the medical schools. One thing is sure, the professors were eminently serious, the work taken up was thoroughly scientific, and some of the results of the medical investigations of that early day are interesting even now.”

“That which is most interesting to us in the modern time in the history of the medical school at Salerno, is to be found in the opportunities for the medical education of women, and the surrender to them of a whole department in the medical school, that of the Diseases of Women.” It is not definitely known just when this development took place. The first positive evidence with regard to it comes in the life of Trotula, who seems to have been the head of the department, with other women as professors under her. She is said to have flourished about the middle of the eleventh century. The life of this great woman, as given, is exceedingly interesting. She was a woman of great literary ability, and was noted for her writings. Some of her books are well known, and are often quoted from”.

“Salerno continued to enjoy the reputation for training women physicians thoroughly, until well on in the fifteenth century. The custom seems also to have been transferred to Naples, and licenses to practice were issued to women graduates. Salerno influenced Bologna and the north Italian universities prfoundly [sic] in all branches of medicine and medical education, particularly in surgery, and the practice of allowing such women as wished to practice medicine or surgery, to enter the university medical schools. This is exemplified in the case of Mondino’s assistant in anatomy, Allesandra Giliani; though there are others whose names are mentioned in history. Through the influence of the first and great university in Italy, feminine education obtained a strong foothold, and with the further development of universities, feminine education came to be the rule. This rule has maintained itself all down the centuries in Italy, so that there has not been a single century since the twelfth, in which there have not been one or more distinguished women teachers in the Italian universities”.

Walsh, in speaking of the educational opportunities outside of Italy, says: “In spite of the absence of formal opportunities for feminine education in medicine at the Western universities, a certain amonnt [sic] of scientific knowledge of diseases as well as valuable practical training in the care of the ailing, was not wanting. The medical knowledge of the women of Northern France, Germany and England, however, though it did not receive the stamp of a formal degree from the University, and the distinction of a license to practice, was none the less thorough and extensive.”

This history of the medieval women physicians would be quite incomplete without a short sketch of the life and work of one of its most remarkable women, that of the Abbess Hildegarde. The record as given of this woman is as follows: “The life of the Abbess Hildegarde is worthy of consideration, because it illustrates the period and makes very clear that, in spite of the grievous misunderstanding of their life and work so common in the modern time, these old time religious orders had most of the interests of modern times, and pursued them with even more than modern zeal and success, very often. Her career illustrates very well what the foundation of the Benedictines had done for the women. When St. Benedict founded his order for man, his sister, Scholastica, wanted to do a similar work for woman. We know the Benedictine monks saved the old classics for us, kept burning the light of intellectual life, and gave refuge to men who wanted to devote themselves to leisure and peace, to the things of the spirit, whether of this world or the other. We have known less of the Benedictine nuns, until now the study of their books shows they provided exactly the same opportunities for women, and furnished a vocation, a home, and an occupation of mind and a satisfaction of spirit for women who, in every generation, do not feel themselves called to be wives and mothers, but who want to live their lives for others, rather than for themselves and their kin; seeking such development of mind and spirit, as may come with the leisure and peace of celibacy.”

St. Hildegarde was born of noble parents in Germany, about the end of the eleventh century. She was a woman of very superior intellect, and possessed of great learning. It is said of her as a writer, — “One of the most important books on medicine that has come to us from the twelfth century was written by her.” Reuss (Rois), the historian, in speaking of her, says, — “Among all the saintly religious who have practiced medicine, or written about it, in the middle ages, the most important is, without doubt, St. Hildegarde. With regard to her book, he continues, — “All those who wish to write the history of medical and natural sciences must read this work, in which this religious woman, evidently grounded in all that was known at that time of the secrets of nature, discusses and examines carefully all the knowledge of the time. It is certain St. Hildegarde knew many things that were unknown to physicians of her time.”

In the sixteenth century, the study and practice of medicine by women, began gradually to decline, and during the following centuries actually died out and became entirely forgotten. Just how this happened is hard to say. It is like other human interests that have been, and ceased to be.

The revival of the study of medicine did not occur until the middle of the nineteenth century, and America enjoys the honor of being the pioneer in this matter. The woman to take advantage of the first opportunity was an English lady, Elizabeth Blackwell, and this dates back to 1848, when she was admitted, after having applied at several medical colleges in the country, into the Geneva Medical College of New York. The history of the admission of this heroic woman; her life as a student in this college of men, many of whom were rough and uncultured; the transformation of such, by her presence alone, into gentlemen, — or, better put, manly men; the annoyance she experienced outside the college, by the women of the boarding-house and the women of the village, who took it upon themselves to treat her with scorn and contempt because she, as a woman, dared to study medicine and aspired to practice this sacred, profession; her graduation with honor from this institution; her admission to the Maternité and other hospitals in Paris after a hard struggle to gain entrance; and her completion of a three years’ course in that city, is most interestingly told by her sister, Dr. Emily Black well in a lecture given by her at the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the First National Woman’s Rights Convention, held in Boston, January 28, 1891.

“Immediately after Dr. Blackwell’s graduation a few women were admitted into other medical colleges. But, so much opposition was brought to bear by the medical societies against the colleges admitting woman, that the doors of these particular colleges were soon closed and these opportunities were cut off. The exclusion of women from all medical institutions in the country now became the settled policy; hence the necessity of opening up medical schools for women. In this Boston took the lead in 1850. In the same year Philadelphia followed. In 1854 the Blackwell sisters obtained a certificate of incorporation for the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, and in 1868 the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary was established.”

In 1863, Dr. Clemence S. Lozier, who had received her medical education in Syracuse, New York, being the first and only woman to graduate from that college, and graduating with the highest honor of the class, founded and endowed the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women and Children. Dr. Lozier was a distinguished physician, and the first woman to perform a surgical operation in the city of New York. She was a surgeon by knowledge and by nature. To know this cultured Christian lady, was to love her. To be associated with, and under her influence, was an inspiration. Being a woman of wealth and great influence, she left no stone unturned to make this college — (her heart’s delight), all that it should be in the way of equipment, so that the students enjoyed the best possible opportunities, both theoretical and clinical. The lecturers in their special subjects were all able men. In the subjects of mineralogy, geology, and chemistry, inorganic and organic, she obtained for the students permission to attend lectures under Professor Charles Stone, one of the best scientific lecturers in Cooper Institute, presiding over one of the best-equipped chemical laboratories to be found in the city. For clinical advantages, and special lectures in the subjects of surgery, diseases of women and children, and the diagnosis class, under the distinguished diagnostician, Dr. Thomas, the doors of the great Bellevue College and Hospital were open to them, and on an equal footing with men the students of this college enjoyed these advantages. The ophthalmic [sic] and aural hospital clinics, where they saw and studied the special diseases of the eye and ear, were also attended by these classes of women; and they were permitted to attend clinics at many of the city dispensaries. The advantages afforded to the students were the best that then could be obtained, and fortunate were the women who gained admission to this college.

The love and admiration on the part of the students for this their noble and energetic dean, Dr. Clemence Lozier, were most remarkable. She was to them the highest type of womanhood: strong in intellect; firm, but just; generous, but judicious; kind-hearted and true. The closing of her life was in keeping with her nature. She had organic disease of the heart, of which she was aware. She was found one morning dead in her room, kneeling beside her bed, with hands clasped as though in prayer when her spirit took its flight to the great beyond.

It was my privilege to attend the funeral of this most distinguished woman. She had been my preceptor and my friend; hence I loved her. I remember one beautiful sentence spoken on that occasion by Dr. J. P. Newman her pastor and life-long friend, who delivered the eulogy. As she lay in her casket in front of the pulpit: as though in peaceful sleep, looking down on her remains while speaking of her force of character and her achievements, he said, — “Here lies before me Energy in repose.” To fully understand and appreciate this sentence, was to be a listener to the whole eulogy.

It is said of the faithful Christians, after death, — “their works do follow them.” This is exemplified in the ease of this Christian lady; for the college of her founding is still in existence, and is said to be the best woman’s medical college in the world to-day.

It has been fittingly said, — “Women in medicine have been like a band of immigrants in a new country, which they could only penetrate by building their own roads as they went.” This was true in the history of the women pioneers in America, who were Doctors Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Dr. Harriet K. Hunt, of Boston, Dr. Zakrzewska, Dr. Sarah Dolley, and Dr. Clemence S. Lozier, of New York. This noble band of herioc [sic] and energetic women, through discouragements deep and dark, and with great personal sacrifice and often humiliation, by hard work overcame the obstacles that embarrassed them and obstructed their pathway, and opened up the road of opportunity for the great army of women who are now following in the footsteps of their elder sisters.

The editor of “The Medical Review of Reviews,” in the June number has the following to say of the work accomplished by women physicians up to the present time: — ”Feminism is a term which at present is frequently seen in the newspapers and magazines, and is heard upon the public platforms and in the lecture circuits. The awakening of women to a sense of power and responsibility is extending throughout the civilized world. The desire for an opportunity for self-expansion equal to that of their brothers, has developed a militant spirit on the part of the intellectual women. The first real opportunity for the expansion of feminine activities was in the medical profession. The medical women of this country have reflected credit upon themselves and their chosen profession. Great advances have been made in medicine since the days of those splendid pioneers” — giving the names of those I have already mentioned. These are followed by the names of those who have gained distinction in the different departments of medicine: “Mary Putnam Jacobi, Grace Peckham Murray, Elizabeth Mosher, in medicine; Mary D. Rushmore and Bertha Van Holsen, in surgery; Alice Weld Tallant, in obstetrics: Anna W. Williams and Martha Wallstein, in pathology; Alice Hamilton and Caroline Hedger, in industrial and social diseases; Evangeline Young, in eugenics; and S. Josephine Baker, in child-welfare.” He continues: — “These represent but a few of the women who have brought things to pass, in their professional career, so as to achieve distinction for themselves as well as the praise of their professional brethren [sic] and the communities in which they have worked.”

This list of earnest medical women might easily be augmented, matched up, and given color tone, by the names of their sisters of a darker race in the profession, who too have taken advantage of stepping into the doors of medical opportunity. These are Doctors Rebecca J. Cole, Susan M. Smith (McKinney) Steward, Sophia Jones, Caroline Still Anderson, Lucy K. Moten, Mary L. Brown, Verina Morton Jones, Alice Woodby McKane, Hallie Tanner Johnson, Alice Bennett, Consuela Clark Stewart, Georgia Patton, Georgiana Rumley, Lucinda Key, Mary Waring, Mary Fitsbutler, Lucy Hughes Brown, Ida Gray, Laura Joiner, Sarah Grant, Hulda Proileau, Julia Hall, Mildred Gibbs, Jane Whipper, Carrie Thomas, Mary Lucas, Grace Du Quid, Josepha Jarrat, Agnes Berry, Mary Britton, M. Evelyne Thompson Coppin, Matilda A. Evans, Lucilla F. Miller, Theodosia Shoults, M. E. Grun Potter and others, whose names I have not been able to obtain. These have made, and are making, records for themselves that will be handed down in history to the distinguished credit of our own race. These women have measured up with their sisters in white, and in some instances have, as students, carried off the highest honors of their classes.

Returning to the Editor of “The Medical Review”, he continues: — “The present status of medical education for women in the United States gives evidence, as far as medical schools are concerned, that there is no lack of opportunity for securing a medical education. In 1909 there were ninety-one co-educational schools, and three distinctively women’s medical colleges. There were over nine hundred students in attendance and more than one hundred and fifty graduates during that year. Apparently, the extension of special medical schools for women is unnecessary. The great need at the present time is equality of opportunity for hospital service. Recently, after long discussion, two women were admitted as internes at Bellevue Hospital.”

Quite recently, I have learned that a colored young woman, Miss Isabella Vanderwal who is now a Junior in the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, has been admitted as an interne into the Maternity Hospital in New York.

The editor above quoted, urges the medical women to demand admission to interneship [sic] in the hospitals of the country as their right, and says: — “There are no arguments against the admission of women physicians as internes in hospitals, which were not raised against their admission into the medical profession.” He heartily commends the women of the country for the notable success they, as a class, have achieved in spite of this embarrassment, and says: — “They should be recognized in every possible way, and should be given the fullest opportunity to demonstrate their fitness to secure the training so essential for the development of their highest possible attainments in a profession which should no more recognize sex differences than the diseases it aims to combat.”

The most recent account of the world-wide opportunities for women now in the study of medicine, is given by Dr. Fielding H. Garrison, in his “History of Medicine”, published this year, in which he gives the names of the countries and intitutions [sic] furnishing these opportunities.

“In the United States and Canada, women can now study medicine anywhere on the same terms with men. In the London School of Medicine for Women, they acquired the privilege of resident posts in the Royal Free Hospital. The Royal College of physicians in Ireland, and The London, University, admit them to the privilege of examinatiou [sic]. The Universities, of Durham, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds and Bristol are co-educational. At Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and St. Andrews, they are given every facility; but there has been much opposition in Edinburg. On the Continent, the Swiss universities took the lead in 1876, The German states followed, one by one, Prussia being the last to throw open the right of university instruction and graduation to women in 1908, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Brnssels [sic], Upsala, and Copenhagen, are all co-educational. The faculties of Paris and Berne are the most frequented. Crowds of young Russian Jewesses flock to the latter.

This historian says. “The number of women graduates who get into practice is said to be relatively small, probably by reason of marriage.” Grant this to be so, and very natrually [sic] so. These women, thus educated make better wives and mothers; and fortunate are the men who marry these women, from an economic standpoint at least. They are blessed in a threefold measure, in that they take unto themselves a wife, a trained nurse, and a doctor. In the words of the book of Proverbs, I may say, “She will do him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.”

Unfortunate, however, is the woman physician who finds herself unevenly yoked; for such a companion will prove to be to her as a mill-stone hanged about her neck. But the medically educated women are generally good diagnosticians in this direction also. They are trained in the art of differentiation, and hence, in the delicate matters of the heart, are the better able to make wise selections; so that the medical education of women and marriage need not become a question of discussion with the women who have chosen the profession of medicine as their life-work. They have only to rejoice over the world-wide opportunities opened up to them, and the fact that so many women are now availing themselves of these advantages.



Source: “Woman in Medicine: A Paper Read Before the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs at Wilberforce, Ohio, August 6, 1914, by Maria Steward, M.D.” (Wilberforce, Ohio) pp. 7-23.