Changing the Face of Medicine

A traveling exhibit honors the contributions of America’s women physicians

Changing the Face of Medicine

Sarah April, left, a senior anthropology major in Arts & Sciences, talks with Mabel L. Purkerson, MD, professor emerita of medicine, at the exhibit.

BY Beth Miller

Medicine is an unsuitable career for women. This was once the conventional wisdom — at least among the men of the medical profession. Despite women’s traditional roles as caregivers, healers and midwives, those who aspired to medicine and the health sciences faced tremendous opposition.

That was then. Although there is still progress to be made in bridging the gender gap, women are now found in every branch of medicine. They are researchers on the cutting edge of new medical discoveries, educators, surgeons, family practitioners, specialists and government officials directing the future of health care.

“Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians,” a traveling exhibit hosted by Becker Library and the Academic Women’s Network at Washington University, included the life stories of a diverse group of extraordinary women physicians from around the nation. The exhibit chronicles the stories of American women overcoming barriers to entering medicine during the course of two centuries, including trailblazers at the School of Medicine.

Two interactive kiosks traveling with the exhibition offered access to the National Library of Medicine’s “Local Legends” web site (, which features outstanding women physicians from every state, including Jessie L. Ternberg, MD, PhD, professor emerita of surgery and of surgery in pediatrics at the School of Medicine, and to a web site created for the larger exhibition at the National Library of Medicine, which includes biographies on Virginia V. Weldon, MD, the first woman to serve on the administrative staff of the School of Medicine’s vice chancellor for medical affairs, and of three School of Medicine alumna: Denise L. Faustman, MD, PhD, now at Harvard Medical School, the late Helen Hofsommer Glaser, MD (1924–99), and Carolyn Bauer Robinowitz, MD, now at the George Washington University School of Medicine. A section of the web site called “Share Your Story,” allows the public to add the names and biographies of women physicians they know.

S. Josephine Baker, MD, DrPH, was a prominent public health physician during the first half of the 20th century. Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-058326, ca. 1920

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the American Library Association organized the exhibition with support from the NLM, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health and the American Medical Women’s Association. The traveling exhibition is based on a larger exhibition that was displayed at the NLM from 2003–05.

“We were very excited to have this exhibit at the School of Medicine,” says Dayna S. Early, MD, associate professor of medicine and past president of the Academic Women’s Network. “We are very proud of our own pioneering women at the School of Medicine, and we hope that these stories will inspire young women to enter medicine and to succeed.”

The School of Medicine has seen tremendous growth in the number of women students since 1970, when there were just 38 women students in the MD program, about 10 percent of all MD students. In 2009, 278, or 47 percent, of students in the MD program were women.

Nationally, between 1970 and 2006, the number of U.S. women physicians increased by more than 1,000 percent, going from 25,401 in 1970 to 256,257 in 2006, or 27.8 percent of the total physician population, according to the American Medical Association.

“This is an important exhibit because it’s important to remember the history of women in medicine and that it took quite some time for women to become physicians,” says Anne Carol Goldberg, MD, associate professor of medicine and president of the Academic Women’s Network. “When I started medical school in 1973, 20 percent of my class was women. When I got to Washington University in 1980 to start a fellowship, there were not many women faculty. We have many more women faculty now, so it’s useful for people to look back and see how things have changed over time.”

The exhibit details some of the hardships the first women physicians endured. Several of the women featured recalled being told by medical school administration that by accepting them, they were displacing a qualified man.

May Edward Chinn, MD (1896–1980), was the daughter of a former slave and an American Indian. She became the first African-American woman to graduate from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and the first African-American woman to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital. Since African-American physicians were not granted admitting privileges or special residencies at any hospitals, Chinn opened a private practice with other African-American physicians.

“We hope that these stories will inspire young women to enter medicine.”
— Dayna S. Early, MD

Helen B. Taussig, MD (1898–1986), known as the founder of pediatric cardiology, lost her mother when she was just 11 years old. She had dyslexia, making it difficult for her to read. While a hospital intern, she had whooping cough and lost her hearing. However, she used that to her advantage; some of her innovations in pediatric cardiology have been attributed to her ability to distinguish the rhythms of normal and damaged hearts by touch, rather than by sound.

Women physicians in the 21st century are benefiting from the career paths carved out since the mid-19th century by a long line of American women, including those who spent their careers at Washington University School of Medicine, such as the late Gerty T. Cori, MD.

Ellen S. More, PhD, head of the Office of Medical History and Archives and professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was the keynote speaker at the event kicking off the exhibit at Becker Library. The editor of Women Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine, More says the history of women’s struggle to take their place in the American medical profession is part of the larger story of women’s changing roles in American society.

“This exhibition is intended to bring to light the story of that struggle and to demonstrate the inventiveness that underlies women physicians’ achievements, a bravura gender performance each woman must adopt for her own intended stage, whether clinical care, neurosurgery, sex education or basic research,” More says. “Only 30 years ago, the woman who chose to become a physician, especially in a traditionally male field such as surgery, was ‘viewed as if she were performing an unnatural act.’”

While some areas of medicine traditionally attract more women, female physicians today can be found in every aspect of the profession, from basic research to surgery.

Early notes that more women physicians and female trainees have entered her field of gastroenterology in recent years. “One of the distinct advantages is that female trainees now have role models,” she says. “People tend to relate better to role models of the same gender because of similar work, family and other responsibilities.”

One of Early’s role models was Elizabeth Ann “Betsy” Garrett, MD, professor of clinical family medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. “She embodied a lot of characteristics that I wanted to develop,” Early says. “She has an appropriate balance of compassion and toughness that allowed her to be successful as a physician and an educator.”

Goldberg, who did not have many female role models when she arrived at the School of Medicine, has turned that fact into a positive. “Over the years it dawned on me that I can be a role model and a mentor for other women,” she says.

To bolster support for women faculty at Washington University, the Academic Women’s Network at the School of Medicine and the Association of Women Faculty on the Danforth Campus have joined together to initiate change. Working with the university’s Child Care Committee, the groups helped bring a new child-care facility to North Campus for use by faculty, staff and students. Opening in 2010, the center will offer care for 150 to 175 children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 6 years.

The two groups and the School of Medicine’s Gender Equity Committee also negotiated to suspend the “tenure clock” when faculty need to take time off for family responsibilities. While this applies to all faculty, it particularly affects women, who tend to be the primary caregivers for children and aging parents.

While there have been positive changes, there is still more work to be done, according to Early and Goldberg.

“Over the last few years, we have tried to make administration aware of the discrimination that many women faculty perceive and experience,” Early says. “We’ve raised awareness, but I’m not sure we’ve made significant progress.”

Goldberg notes that only about 15 percent of the School of Medicine’s full professors are women. “While that figure has increased, it’s still a relatively small number,” she says. “Things have definitely improved over the last 30 years; we are now seeing women accepted completely for their accomplishments aside from gender issues. But there are still issues that need to be dealt with.”

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