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Women in Medicine in the 19th Century


In my new post Civil War romance release, Cassidy’s War, the heroine fights for the right to attend medical school in order to become a liscensed physician. She’s already treating patients with knowledge acquired from her late physician father, but wants the validation a medical degree will give her.

The 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.

My upcoming release, Cassidy’s War, features a heroine who longs to be a schooled physician despite male opposition.

For more on Victorian women in medicine visit these sites:

For more on my novel, Cassidy’s War, and to read the opening chapters, visit my website



  1. Isn’t it something that it took so long for women to matter as nurses? Now it is hard to accept men as nurses. I think it is a matter of getting used to what is acceptable. I know when I am sick, I am not partial to either, I just want to feel better.

  2. That is funny, Paisley! I remember when I was a kid, all nurses were female. Although we had women doctors, there weren’t all that many. When I was about eight years old, my mom bought me a series of books about a young woman who went to nursing school and that was what I aspired to do…at least until the following year, when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. lol

    When I was hospitalized in intensive care about 13 years ago, I had this really cute male nurse who reminded me of my oldest son. Even had the same first name. I have to tell you, it felt really weird. lol

  3. Susan, very interesting post. I didn’t realize female medical colleges had been around quite that long. I thought of them as post Civil War. Thanks for the information.

  4. It surprises a lot of people, Caroline! And since women were discouraged from practicing medicine at that time, not many tried to go the course. And it’s surprising when you think of how women were the natural healers in past civilizations.

    I think the men just wanted to keep the profession all to themselves. They even invaded the midwifery practices by making childbirth a medical procedure and moving the birthing place from the home into hospitals.

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