“Ungentlemanly behavior” has a long and colorful past.
The “Jeering Incident” occurred in 1869, a few years after the first woman was admitted to an American medical school by accident (more on this in a moment). A group of female medical students arrived at an all-male medical school to observe a clinical demonstration. The women were greeted with “yells, hisses, caterwauling, mock applause, offensive remarks on personal appearance, etc.”(1)
Most of the press coverage condemned this “ungentlemanly behavior”, but not all – one local newspaper published a letter to the editor, which asked, “Who is this shameless herd of sexless beings who dishonor the garb of ladies?”
In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to share with you some learning about my professional foremothers in the U.S. and in my own family.
Two doctor parents
Being raised by my mother, a pediatrician, and my father, a neurologist, some people laugh and say I had no choice other than to become a doctor. For myself, I never actually felt pressured to go into medicine. I always enjoyed visiting the hospital with either of my parents, and I knew they were helping other people feel better every day, and that always appealed to me.
In the U.S., the first woman to receive a medical degree was Elizabeth Blackwell, a British doctor whose family moved to New York City in 1832, when Elizabeth was 11 years old. After pursuing private medical study, she was admitted in 1847 to Geneva Medical College in upstate New York.
This historic step is considered by most to have been an accident. The faculty members considering her admission were not sure how to handle the unprecedented case of a female applicant, so they put it to the vote of the 150 men enrolled at the school. Apparently thinking it was a joke, they voted unanimously to admit her. In 1849, she became the first woman granted a medical degree in the U.S.
Women have always played a significant role in the delivery of health care, mostly in the capacities of nurse, midwife and healer, using local and herbal remedies to treat illness and assist with pregnancy and childbirth. The professionalization of medicine in the early 1800’s led to the “systematic efforts to minimize the role of untrained uncertified women and keep them out of new institutions such as hospitals and medical schools.”(2)
The middle of the 19th century saw the establishment of several women’s medical colleges. By 1900, there were 19 women’s medical colleges and 9 women’s hospitals (set up because it was still difficult for women to be granted venues for clinical experience). Also, a few universities even had co-ed medical education programs. At this point, women were 5% of about 7000 doctors. (And they couldn’t even vote yet!)
This progress slid backwards in the early 20th century. Efforts to standardize the quality of hospitals and medical education resulted in the closing of many institutions, especially those that educated minorities and women. By 1930, only one women’s medical school remained.
By the middle of the 20th century, women made up 5.5% of medical students, and 6% of doctors. The male-dominated environment of medicine, including overt harassment, did not change much until 1972, when Title IX banned gender discrimination in education, including medical school.
By the time I graduated from UC Irvine Medical College in 1990, 17% of doctors were women. Several pioneering women in medicine had made great achievements, including Dr. Alexa Canaday, the first female and the first African-American to become a neurosurgeon in the U.S. (1984) and Dr. Antonia Novello, the first female Surgeon General of the U.S. (1990).
Women in medicine in Argentina
In Argentina, where my parents are from, the first woman to be granted a medical degree was Cecelia Grierson, in 1889. Her accomplishments went on to include significant work in public health, adding kinesiology/massage therapy to the medical school curriculum, founding the first nursing school in Argentina, and a lifetime of feminist activism.
My own medical foremothers include my father’s mother, Sara Gutrecht. In 1949 in Buenos Aires, she was granted a degree in Obstetricia to become a practicing midwife. While statistics on women in medicine in Argentina are a bit harder to come by than in the U.S., one report shows that in 2001, 39% of medical school graduates in Argentina were women.(3)
My mother graduated from medical school in Buenos Aires in 1962. She estimates that perhaps a third of her class was female. Shortly thereafter, she and my father moved to Rochester, Minnesota, to work at the Mayo Clinic, where she did her residency training in Pediatrics. (Later at the Mayo Clinic, she gave birth to me.)
My mom has been in practice as a Pediatrician in Orange County for over 40 years. When she announced her retirement a few years ago, pandemonium ensued among her patients who thought they were losing their beloved doctor. Things settled down when her patients realized she would continue working a few days per month, which she continues to do to this day.
Where are we now?
In the U.S. today, an Association of American Medical Colleges 2015 report shows that 39% of doctors are women. A closer look shows that by percentage of each medical field, the numbers range from women being only 5% of orthopedic surgeons all the way up to women making up 54% of OB/GYN doctors.(4)
Just this past year, history was made: female applicants to medical school outnumbered male applicants in the U.S., by 50.7% to 49.3%. I am delighted to say that at my medical alma mater, UC Irvine, women last year accounted for 54.8% of applicants.(5)
While we still have a way to go for equal representation in all fields of medicine and science, women in medicine have come a long way since open jeering for just showing up to pursue a career as a doctor.
An article from 1852 on “lady students” in medical school said that “ere long it will be no strange thing to see a female physician in every community”.(6)
Now that we know this vision has come true, where will women in medicine take us in the next 150 years?
I welcome your comments below!
Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and science: Women physicians in American medicine (2005). pp 1-27
“Doctor Statistics in Latin/South America”, EphMRA and PBIRG, April 2007.