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Women in Medicine in 1870


womanphysician1The first generation of women medical students faced an uphill battle, only fierce determination and ultimate competence—in other words, they had to be better than any of their male counterparts—could get them a foot in the door.

In 1870, 525 trained women physicians existed in America, far more than in most of the world combined. Most of these women weren’t practitioners of traditional medicine as we know it today, but the alternative practices of homeopathy, eclectic and botanical medicine.

The first woman in America to graduate with an MD degree was Elizabeth Blackwell. She was so frustrated that women had such difficulty obtaining medical degrees and hospital training, that she started an infirmary in New York in 1857, along with her sister, Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. Blackwell and her sister opened a medical school of high standards, giving women a complete medical education as good as that of the medical colleges of the day. Their rigorous curriculum included the first course in hygiene offered anywhere in the country.

In the nineteenth century participation for women in the medical profession was limited by law and practice during a time when medicine was professionalizing. But women did continue to serve in health fields such as nursing and midwifery, while gaining access to medical education and medical work.

During a time when women where routinely prohibited from attending medical school, they formed their own schools where women could be trained.

Here are a few:
1. Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women – founded in 1886
2. London School of Medicine for Women
3. Tokyo Women’s Medical University – founded 1900
4. Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania – founded in 1850 as Female Medical College of Pennsylvania

As far back as 1848, Dr. Samuel Gregory opened the first medical school for women in the world – the Boston Female Medical College. In 1850, the school was expanded and renamed the New England Female Medical College. Originally established to train midwives, the curriculum was expanded to provide a full medical degree. However, condemnation from the Boston medical establishment was swift. The group charged that women had insufficient stamina to deal with the tension of medical practice.

“Suppose physicians were as ignorant upon this subject as females now are; they would then be easily alarmed and incapable of rendering efficient and in case of emergency…the fact of being one of the stronger sex does not render one competent.” – Dr. Samuel Gregory.

And women did persevere, such as: Hannah E. Myers Longshore, 1819-1901, who was the first woman faculty member at an American medical school.

She received her degree from the Female College of Pennsylvania in 1851.

Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910, first woman MD in America.

Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926, first African American graduate nurse.

All of these women and many more were pioneers pushing at the boundaries of a male dominated Victorian America in the nineteenth century.

For more on Victorian women in medicine visit these sites:



  1. Paisley Kirkpatrick says:

    It’s a good thing women have strong constitutions and never give up. I rather like having a woman doctor…

  2. Deb Maher says:

    Here’s a link to a site I bookmarked a while back on the history of Illinois Women in Medicine. It’s just a short essay but at the end it has links to a number of other pieces written in the 19th and early 20th century. It’s interesting.

    Great blog, Susan! Thank you.

  3. Mary Ricksen says:

    Thank God that people finally got it. I too like a woman doctor. You feel free to tell them things that would bother you to say to a man. And they get it.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Paisley, Deb and Mary! I’ll check that article out, Deb. Sounds interesting.

  5. Anna Kathryn says:

    I’ve done some research on this subject, too. A great book with a couple of chapters on women doctors in the 19th century is BLEED, BLISTER AND PURGE. It makes a comment about how odd it is that women have always been the person to heal the family, but somehow, we weren’t considered competent enough to go through medical school and heal society.

  6. Thanks for visiting, Anna! And that’s one of the battles women had during the Civil War when they wanted to replace men in camp and the hospitals as nurses. I think one of the problems was Victorian society thought it indecent for women to care for men who weren’t their relatives.

  7. Joyce Moore says:

    Susan: Really enjoyed reading your blog today. Sorta makes you wonder if, had women been allowed to practice medicine much earlier, we’d have found cures for more diseases by now–not that doctors discover cures, but maybe more recognition would have gone to something like breast cancer.

  8. One of my favorite subjects. One of the roadblocks was that many (men) believed there was scientific evidence that women were, by nature, incapable of the mental rigors of studying medicine. The struggle in this era was to make medicine respectable. No degree was required for a man during this time, either, and you could literally “buy” a degree by just showing up at a few lectures. The idea of women doctors was viewed as demeaning a profession that was struggling to gain status.
    For those who want another source, I loved this book: Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835-1920 (Paperback), Ruth Abram. It’s full of pictures, too.

  9. Thanks for visiting, Joyce and Blythe! And thanks for the heads up on the book. Since I’m plotting out a post Civil War romance with a heroine who wants to be a physician after serving during the war as a nurse, this is a subject I need to do a lot of research on.

  10. carolyndee says:

    I love the article on women in medicine. In my own family, Nicolena “Lena” Snedal, is a distant relative who supposedly was the first woman osteopath in North Texas. She then moved to the Texas Gulf Coast where she bought a hospital. Her daughter also became an osteopath and they practiced together for a while.

  11. Tanya Hanson says:

    Hi Susan. This is a tremendous blog. Thanks, I will definitely enjoy researching your resources. I don’t now how accurate Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman was, (I think pretty much) but I do recall the prejudict she endured even from her own family, Bostonians all.

    The hygiene information is almost terrifying. Just think how many people died because the almighty male physicians didn’t bother to wash their hands.

  12. Gene Johnson says:

    I recognize the name of Nicolina Snedal as the daughter of Andrew Snedal who was born in Frosten Parish, Nord-Trondelag, Norway, and lived in Grayson County, TX. I would like to compare notes about the family heritage.

  13. carolyndee says:

    Gene, you are right about the identity of the Snedal family. My brother and I would love to hear from you. I wonder if you would email me privately at my pen name email,
    I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


  14. Anonymous says:

    why do we NOT hear about these true American heroes?why did we have to wait til the late 1990s fr buffy to show our wives,sisters and daughters to have a strong hero?

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