Women doctors faced profound discrimination a century ago

Women now make up about 60 percent of doctors under 35. The situation was very different in the past.

Dr. Mary Bacon
Dr. Mary Bacon, first woman doctor admitted to Bridgeton, NJ, Hospital staff. Shown on her graduation from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1916). Photo courtesy of Mary Caruthers Cossaboon.

In her book “Doctors Wanted, No Women Need Apply”: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835-1975, Mary Roth Walsh recounts the terrible difficulty women faced in studying medicine and in working as physicians. During the “golden age” of women physicians in the late nineteenth century, only about ten percent of medical students were female. The percentage dropped significantly in the following decades, mostly, according to Walsh, because male doctors wanted it that way.

I drew upon Walsh’s study and other sources in my depiction of Dr. Sarah Kennecott, the female co-protagonist in my book Into the Suffering City: A Novel of Baltimore. Sarah had an advantage in her quest to become a doctor in the first decade of the twentieth century. She was able to study at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, which was not only one of the best schools in the country—it was also one of the few top-flight institutions that admitted women. This liberal policy was in place only because a group of wealthy Baltimore women conditioned a substantial financial gift on the enrollment of female students.

Sarah is smart and determined. But, as I recount in the story, her talent cuts both ways. A senior faculty member acknowledges her academic success and then humiliates her in packed classroom of her peers with the following diatribe:

“Female success may force men to lose their confidence and their vitality. High-achieving females could drag medicine away from manly progress and toward useless womanly frivolity …. Yes, we can have first-rate women doctors—at great cost to the medical profession. Think of it—the physician of tomorrow might prefer mindless chatter rather than aggressive combat against disease.”

I paraphrased writings from the period conveying this exact sentiment among male doctors. Most men were convinced that women didn’t have “the right stuff” to equal male physicians. It was a confoundingly closed circle: men were seen as better suited to doctoring since the vast majority of doctors were men. Any women considering medicine had few role models to emulate. Toss in the ingrained sexism and misogyny on the part of more than a few male physicians, and the path forward for aspiring females was steep and rocky.

Credit: Wellcome Library. Caption suggests he has purposefully caught a cold in order to be seen by the young pretty doctor. CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In my novel, Sarah is also on the autism spectrum, a trait unknown and unappreciated at the time. As with her superior intellect, her autism brings advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, she has trouble interacting socially and comes across as odd to neurotypicals. But she is able to mount a tremendous focus to get things done, as she is unencumbered by the distractions most people face. This is the same kind of autistic “superpower” attributed to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Like Thunberg, Sarah sees issues with fierce moral clarity and has a powerful commitment to justice.

Most women lacking a superpower in the past were effectively shut out of a medical career. With the rise of a more equitable educational and professional environment in recent years, that situation thankfully has changed.

 

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