It has come to my attention that there were some unfortunate errors introduced into my April Scribe article during the typesetting process; notably, two dates were changed, making the text quite inaccurate (and almost incomprehensible). So, in the interest of clarity, the correct version is included herein:
“Society Lady”: Mae Whitney Cardwell, M.D.
When the Portland City Medical Society first convened in 1884, the group brought itself to order and quickly passed its By-Laws, including one notable clause: to ban women, in perpetuity.
Eternity has, perhaps, never seemed so short: in 1892, Dr. Mae Harrington Whitney was elected as the society’s first female member, throwing open the doors to generations of women physicians. In the July 1905 issue of the Medical Sentinel, the editors were moved to comment that “at the time of the organization [of the Society] women were not admitted as members. Today women are among its most honored guests. Truly, ‘the world do move.’”
Member of the Oregon State Medical Society since 1885, Whitney was an active member of the medical community of the city. From 1893-1903, she served as treasurer of the OSMS and was vice president of its House of Delegates in 1904; in 1894, she was the Oregon delegate to the American Medical Association convention in San Francisco. As contributing editor of the Medical Sentinel, Whitney regularly highlighted information from OSMS meetings, including addresses and scientific papers, and reported on the activities of medical groups outside of the state. She herself routinely presented papers at meetings of the OSMS, such as “Technology of Antiseptic Surgery,” and published in state and national journals, including the provocatively titled “Women as risks,” published in the Medical Examiner and Practitioner (1905: xv, 534-537).
Born in Pennsylvania in 1853, Whitney came to the West Coast in 1877, and graduated from Cooper Medical College five years later. She took a second M.D. from the Willamette University Medical Department in 1885, and received additional training in New York from 1888-1889. Returning to Portland in 1889, she joined the medical staff of the Portland Hospital in Sunnyside and, with Dr. Reese Holmes, began a training school for nurses there. In April of 1895, Whitney married Dr. J.R. Cardwell, Portland’s first resident dentist and himself an active member of the city’s dental community.
Her experience in the male-dominated medical societies of the city led Whitney Cardwell to become a founding member and first president of the Medical Club of Portland, a society created exclusively for women physicians in 1900. She held various positions within the club, and served as president a second time, in 1925.
In 1903, Mayor George Williams appointed Whitney Cardwell to the city’s Board of Health, making her the first woman to hold such a position. She served until 1905, when Mayor Harry Lane appointed a new board, including another prominent woman physician, Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy.
A constant advocate for women’s rights, Whitney Cardwell was also a charter member of the Portland Women’s Club, hygiene liaison to the Oregon Congress of Mothers, staff member of the Florence Crittenton Home and the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, and one of the first members of the Oregon Child Welfare Commission. In addition, she was active in the suffrage movement in the state, and served as one of five vice presidents of the College Equal Suffrage Association’s Portland Chapter in the 1912 suffrage campaign.
During World War I, Whitney Cardwell and three colleagues –Drs. Katherine Manion, Mary MacLachan, and Emily Balcom—challenged the United States Army’s denial of officer status for medical women. Presenting themselves for duty at the Vancouver Barracks, the women were ultimately denied officer status by the Surgeon General, but the action was a powerful test case and an important component in the broader movement for full participation of women physicians in the armed forces.
Whitney Cardwell retired from practice in 1926 and left Portland to return to her Eastern roots. When she died in 1929 in Pennsylvania, the Portland Oregonian hailed her as “an outstanding member of her profession and a pioneer in women’s activities in the world of medicine.” Her efforts to advance the status of women in both the medical profession and society at large left an indelible imprint on Portland society and secured her place among the most prominent figures in the city’s medical history.