Women once faced bullies, blacklists and even angry mobs to practice medicine

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Elizabeth Blackwell had an epiphany.

After a friend back home in Cincinnati admitted that she delayed treatment for uterine problems because she didn’t want to be handled by a “rough unfeeling man,” Blackwell — then a shy 24-year-old music teacher — decided to study medicine.

“If I could have been treated by a lady doctor,” the friend confided to Blackwell, “my worst sufferings would have spared me.”

That sent Blackwell on a mission: She applied to 29 schools before getting into Geneva Medical College in New York state two years later in 1847— the male students voted to admit her, assuming her application was a joke from a rival school. 

The unflappable Blackwell, however, was no joke, and her professors and fellow students treated her with respect, even as journalists from all over came to Geneva to “gawk” at the “pretty little specimen of the feminine gender” as she took notes during anatomy lectures. 

She wasn’t so lucky off campus. As an intern in Philadelphia, her fellow residents refused to be in the same room as her, withholding vital information about patients from her. When she opened her own private practice in Greenwich Village in 1851, landlords refused to rent to her, thinking “woman physician” meant “abortionist.” 

Blackwell is just one female physician profiled in Olivia Campbell’s new book, “Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine” (out March 2). These feminist pioneers suffered ridicule, prejudice and even abuse when they set out to pursue medicine in the mid-19th century in the United States and Europe. Medical students threw trash, mud and rotten eggs at them; residents spat tobacco juice on their dresses. When they opened their own hospitals, their neighbors appeared wielding “pickaxes and shovels.” 

Nevertheless, they persisted: launching their own schools and hospitals and administering to their fellow sisters who needed their care the most. 

“They would never stop fighting, because they saw how women physicians could revolutionize medicine, not just for the benefit of female patients, but for everyone,” Coleman writes. 

Before the 1500s, women regularly practiced medicine and various healing arts throughout Europe. Yet some time in the 13th century, as medicine became seen as a professionalized career, authorities branded these “wise women” and female healers as witches and sorceresses and burned them at the stake — even the nuns. Even in the 19th century, medical journals argued that women lacked the intellectual capacity to practice medicine and labeled girls who wanted to study the science — with its myriad “unpleasant sights” — unladylike and likely deranged. 

While the medical establishment viewed Blackwell as a humorous novelty, they regarded her successors as a threat. Medical schools, including Geneva, suddenly banned women. Those that allowed women to matriculate then wouldn’t grant them their MDs. Progressive physicians and activists did open medical schools for women, but they lacked the funds of more established institutions and had trouble forming relationships with hospitals that would provide students with hands-on experience (a vital part of medical education). 

Men increasingly responded to the threat of women doctors with violence. When one Philly hospital allowed students from a women’s school to attend a clinical lecture, a group of 300 men showed up “hurling spitballs, epithets, insults and catcalls.” Afterward, these brutes chased the women students “into the streets while screaming indecencies and throwing stones.” 

This maniacal resistance just made women more determined to become doctors. 

“I began the study of medicine merely from personal motives; now I am also impelled by the desire to remove women from the care of such young ruffians,” one woman wrote in an 1870 op-ed. 

Undeterred, they studied at their own med schools and opened their own practices and hospitals, giving one another jobs, internships and support. 

They flourished. It turned out lots of women — who felt embarrassed around male doctors or were tired of having men dismiss their ailments as “hysteria” — felt more comfortable going to these “lady doctors.” 

Additionally, many women physicians, like Blackwell, opened dispensaries for women and children, offering free care. As Campbell notes, the “poor women immigrants who came to consult [these doctors] were unconcerned about whether or not practicing medicine was a proper field for a woman. What they wanted was free medical care.” 

Fast-forward more than a century later and in 2017, for the first time ever, there were more women medical students than men in the United States. 

As Campbell writes, “What a glorious rebuke to all of those nasty Victorian naysayers who claimed women were entirely unfit to practice medicine.”

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