Sunday, September 7, 2008

"Doctors Wanted - No Women Need Apply" - NOT!

I could browse this site for hours: the N.I.H./National Library of Medicine website called Changing the Face of Medicine, which celebrates the lives of women physicians in America.

Any time I get a little discouraged or feel a little fatigued about working my two jobs - nine or more hours in the O.R., followed by a commute home directly into the next task, food preparation for the evening meal and after-dinner homework/music/general kid-help - I look up stories of women who had it MUCH HARDER than I do and try to give myself a little wake-up call. I stop whining right away.

Here are just a few of the many amazing stories that have inspired me:

Dr. Susan La Fleche Picotte, born in 1865, was the first Native American woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. She was 24 years old. She was also the first person to receive federal aid for professional education. The M.D. program at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania was a three-year program; she graduated after two years at the top of her class. She had been inspired as a child to study medicine by the death of a Native American woman after the local white doctor refused to provide care for her. In 1894 she married Henry Picotte; they had two sons. She had a busy general practice serving both white and non-white patients. Two years before her death in 1913 she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska, achieving a lifelong dream.

Dr. Elizabeth D. A. Magnus Cohen was the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Louisiana. The NLM site relates, "While she was still in medical school, a New Orleans Bee editorial on July 3, 1853, had labeled the idea of a female physician treating male patients as incongruous and improper. In 1898, an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association blamed women physicians for the declines in salaries and prestige of the medical profession. Eventually, medical schools began refusing to admit women." Dr. Cohen recounts that as a surgeon she was called at least once or twice every single night before dawn during her thirty-year practice from 1857-1887. Other doctors apparently referred to her as a "lucky hand" in tough cases. She was married and had five children, though only one lived to adulthood.

Dr. Sarah Read Adamson Dolley was the first woman to complete a hospital intership, in 1852. Her interest in medicine was sparked by a physiology book given to her by her teacher, Graceanna Lewis, to read at home. She practiced OB/gyn and ran a medical practice with her husband, with whom she had two children, one of whom died in childhood. "Her vivid correspondence documents her success in creating a solo practice after the death of her practice partner—her husband. They also reveal her anguish over how to support her son, pay for his education (he, too, became a physician), and how to overcome the resistance of her male colleagues. But her letters reveal that in her rise to success, nothing was easy, especially without a role model to guide her."

Dr. Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson was the first woman of any ethnicity to be a board-certified physician in the state of Alabama. She was already married and a mother when she began her medical studies and in 1891 earned her medical degree from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania with honors. While "southern newspapers had scoffed at the idea of a black woman even applying to take the [board] exam," in that same year the New York Times took note of her success in passing the grueling ten-day Alabama State Medical Examination. Alas, her career was brief. She died of childbirth complications on April 26, 1901.

Finally, though I don't think she was a mother as well as a physician, I want to honor Dr. Elizabeth Ann Grier, the first African-American woman licensed to practice medicine in Georgia. She was an emancipated slave who alternated every year of her medical education with a year of picking cotton in order to pay for her training. "When I saw colored women doing all the work in cases of accouchement [childbirth]," she said, "and all the fee going to some white doctor who merely looked on, I asked myself why should I not get the fee myself. For this purpose I have qualified. I went to Philadelphia, studied medicine hard, procured my degree, and have come back to Atlanta, where I have lived all my life, to practice my profession." Sadly, she died in 1902 after practicing for only a few years.

It's stories like these that let help keep me going, putting one foot in front the other and telling myself, "You can do this. You totally can." I think we have to keep passing on stories like these - to our students, our colleagues, our children, ourselves.


  1. Really inspiring! Thanks for posting.

  2. OMG. I love this post. Love the NIH site (thanks for the link). Absolutely awesome. Just shows what can happen when women stop seeing what society has taught them, but instead begin to see where their abilities can take them.

  3. What a fantastic post!! Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Cool post! Can't wait to check out this sight for inspiration.

  5. Great website! Thanks for sharing.

  6. wow. great post, it's important even for those of us who aren't physicians to recognize the women who paved the way for all of us to achieve higher education.

  7. I'd also like to add that the first class to convene at the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) in 1892-1893 included women. Also, Barbara Ross-Lee, D.O., became the first African-American woman to be appointed dean of a U.S. medical school—the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine.


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