Today's history of medicine lecture for the first-year medical students was Part I of Dr. Sima Desai's two-part presentation on the history of women in medicine.
Dr. Desai delivered the brief outline of this history up to the nineteenth century in broad strokes, moving from the Sumerians (women as natural healers) to the Middle Ages (inferiority of women, witch hunts for female practitioners) to the Victorian era (extreme prudery leading to a severe decline in the practice of women's health). By the 19th century, industrialization and increasing poverty brought women back into the medical arena, as they took the lead in matters of public health, sanitation, and hygiene.
Nineteenth-century American medicine was not the professionalized sphere we know today; in fact, it was often thought that if you couldn't practice any other profession, medicine was a good trade to go into. Apprenticeships, along with short courses of formal training at medical schools, were the only requirements for licensed physicians. Still, a woman was considered completely unsuited to this field of study, and Elizabeth Blackwell was turned down by sixteen medical schools until the Geneva Medical College finally accepted her in 1847. When she received her degree in 1849, she became the first American women to graduate from medical school.
Having opened a door into medicine for herself, she saw it close tightly behind her. Geneva Medical College turned down their second female applicant, noting that Ms. Blackwell's admission had been an experiment, not a precedent.
The OHSU Library, in cooperation with the Multnomah County Library, will be hosting the traveling exhibit "Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians" in June 2008. If you're interested in learning more about the history of women in American medicine before then, check out the virtual exhibit from the National Library of Medicine. Be sure to look for University of Oregon Medical School alumnae Esther Pohl Lovejoy and Marie Equi, as well as former OHSU School of Medicine Dean Christine Cassel.