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History of Women in Science and Medicine

PI: Eve Fine

Study Description

WISELI's efforts to promote "the participation and advancement of women in science and engineering," along with those of our colleagues across the nation, are the most recent in a long history of efforts to attain equity in educational and employment opportunities for women in scientific fields. Understanding the challenges, strategies, and successes of our predecessors can guide and inspire our current work. Focusing on a specific time, place, and discipline, this research project examines women's entry into medical practice in 19th–century Chicago. This project will extend and refine research conducted for my dissertation thesis, "Pathways to Practice: Women Physicians in Chicago, 1850–1902."

Women who entered the profession of medicine in the 19th century faced considerable opposition because their behavior and goals conflicted with prevailing ideas about women’s proper place in society. Women, according to the Victorian doctrine of “separate spheres,” belonged in the private or domestic sphere. Their role was to marry, to raise and educate their children, and to provide a peaceful haven for their husbands who worked in the increasingly hostile, competitive, and immoral public sphere of commerce and industry. Consequently, women who sought entry into the medical profession faced accusations that they were abandoning their proper place in society and threatening civilization, the family, their femininity, their modesty, and their health. These arguments, as well as fear of economic competition from female medical practitioners, led male medical schools and hospitals to deny women access to their institutions. As other historians—notably Virginia Drachman, Mary Roth Walsh, and Regina Morantz Sanchez—have shown, women responsed to their exclusion from male centers of medical education and practice, by founding their own separate female medical institutions. After initial struggles with financial problems, these institutions flourished. They produced numerous women doctors, provided places for them to practice, and helped women doctors gain acceptance.

Chicago was one of several cities in which women's medical institutions flourished. Mary Harris Thompson founded the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children in 1863 to provide clinical training and experiences to women physicians. She also attempted to integrate women into Chicago's medical schools. After failing to do, she and William H. Byford co-founded the Woman's Hospital Medical College of Chicago in 1871. Though these institutions played a pivotal role in establishing women in the medical profession in Chicago, my study of the entire community of women practicing medicine in the city suggests that they were but one of several pathways women seeking to become physicians pursued. My research focuses on the range and variety of women’s experiences and investigates the various interactions and support networks within this community of women doctors.

The goal of this continued research is to publish a book and/or journal articles.



Works in Progress