Two or three decades ago, the doors of opportunity seemed fast barred against women in this profession. One bolt was the prejudice of the trustees and faculties of medical colleges; another was the unwillingness of young men students to have young women in the classes. But after these difficulties had been overcome, and young women had been graduated with honor, there still remained struggles of competition, public prejudice, and general distrust.
At the time when the first women graduated from our medical schools, there were almost universally, and generally with justice, held in disrepute. Their practice was generally of a criminal nature. So when respectable and highly educated women announced themselves as medical practitioners, they were at once classed with those who had disgraced their own womanhood and the medical profession.
Women can endure and overcome indifference and even opposition, but the one thing which woman’s nature finds hardest to bear, is disrepute. After years of study with the high aim of being of service to her sisters in sickness and suffering, to be met with the cold look of suspicion tends to crush those who are not truly heroic. But happily these days of suspicion are now forever past. There are now between three and four thousand women in the United States who are regular graduates of medical colleges and are practicing the profession with honor and success.
Women have long, and we may say always, felt keenly the need of women physicians. It was claimed by many that woman in entering the medical profession was overstepping the bounds of modesty. But they seemed to forget that women patients have modesty and, in hundreds of instances, suffer for years, rather than to consult a physician of the other sex.
Women is preëminently [sic] the ministering one of the household, from the cradle up, and why should she be denied the training for the most skilled form of ministration to physical suffering?
In the Buffalo Medical Journal, in 1869, was the following editorial comment on women in the medical profession: “If I were to plan with malicious hate the greatest curse I could conceive for woman; if I would estrange them from the protection of men and make them so far as possible loathsome and disgusting to men, I would favor this so-called reform, which proposes to make doctors of them.” This sounds like a voice from India, Turkey or China, or, at the best, a voice from medieval Europe. And to think that this was seriously written in a medical journal but three decades ago! Surely this has been a wonderful century for women, or, we should say, woman has made it a wonderful century.
A sketch of the life of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to receive the degree of M.D., is elsewhere given in this book. She was the pioneer and prepared the way for others, who followed in rapid succession. A Boston journal speaking of her graduation said, “The ceremonies of graduating Miss Blackwell at Geneva may be called a farce. The profession was quite too full before.” So full that there was not room for one lone woman! But men have been obliged to make room. Students in medical colleges where women were admitted found that they were obliged to attend sharply to their studies to keep along with brave women who were seeking preparation for the noble art of healing.
It may be of interest to relate the experience of, who was for years the physician of President Garfield and his family. She was the entering wedge to open the doors of the Cleveland Homeopathic Hospital. This college would not sell its scholarships to women. The institution was in debt for a new building and the creditor would not turn over the keys until he had been granted a scholarship to be disposed of as he chose. This scholarship he sold to Miss Edson, who was thus entitled to enter. A faculty meeting was held and it was decided that she would not be allowed to enter, but she calmly informed them that she would be there at the opening of the year. They said, “It would not be very pleasant for you.” She replied, “That is your lookout. If the men who come here to study medicine cannot treat a woman decently here, they are not fit to treat them elsewhere. If I live I shall be here.” And she came and soon other women came and they were graduated with honor.
Having been the physician of President Garfield for many years, she was in constant attendance upon him during his last days, though he as under the surgical care of six other physicians. It is also said of her, “She introduced to the United States the first Chinese baby of rank born in this country.”
There are now thirty-six medical colleges which will admit mixed classes, and five medical schools exclusively for women.
The movement is becoming world-wide. Women are studying and practicing medicine in France. In Belgium, they are allowed to practice medicine, though the law profession is still closed to them. In Russia a special school of medicine for women was established by imperial decree in 1890. In Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, women are allowed to enter this profession; in the latter we may mention Madras, Melbourne, Sidney, Wellington, Calcutta, and Toronto.
America has the honor of graduating the first Chinese woman physician, that is, to give back to China the first native woman with a degree from a non-Chinese school, Dr. Hu King Eng. She spent nine years in this country, and from the first had in view serving the women of her own race by becoming a physician. She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia and took a post-graduate course at the Polyclinic, where she made a special study of the eye and ear. She returned to China to direct the work of the Foochow Hospital under the auspices of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Church.
Woman is by nature fitted for the medical profession. She has gentleness, sympathy, patience. She feels for childhood and womanhood as men never can, and, because of her intuitive powers, we believe that with the same intellectual and technical equipment, she will more quickly and accurately diagnose a case than will a physician of the other sex. And she has a special mission to motherhood, for which the world has waited.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.