Friday, October 10, 2014

Alice Baker and the Early Years of Women in Medical Schools

I’ve been thinking about the book I discussed in my last post, The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing, so I wanted to explore one of the educational issues in the letters a little further. One of the most striking aspects I found in the book hit me before I even opened it: one of the protagonists is a woman studying to be a physician in the late 1930s. While issues surrounding being a woman in a male-dominated profession are rarely addressed directly, Alice Baker was certainly affected by this imbalance.

Baker relates the story of one physician who told her she didn’t “look like the type of girl who would study medicine.” She didn’t know what that “type” was. The physician clarified his position. She “looked as if [she] were the type who wouldn’t be completely happy until married and a mother of six.” Even in this private letter, Baker is very polite remarking only that the conversation was “funny,” meaning odd. Such instances of misogyny were certainly socially acceptable and likely quite common.

Holoubek seems to give more detail as to the type that physician was referring to in the book’s prologue when he recalls his first impressions of Baker.

Looking back I wasn’t so favorably disposed toward Alice the day we met. When she first reported to MacCarty’s lab, I turned to the other fellows in dismay. “There’s a girl in the class!”

A hen medic.

Most every woman medical student I’d ever met sported short hair and slacks, as if she wanted to be one of the guys. Alice, it turned out was different. She dressed neatly and handled herself like a lady. She had a soft Southern drawl. And she smiled a lot.

A female medical student?
(No, Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong.)
The stereotype of women in medical schools was simply that of a masculine woman, a woman that did not conform to society’s idea of femininity. The physician and Holoubek see Baker as fulfilling their idea of femininity, acting like a lady, smiling, and looking as though she wanted to fulfill a domestic role. Thankfully, such conceptions of gender are much less acceptable today.

In the 1930s, Baker was entering a profession that still had not seen many women. A small number of women began entering medical practice in the late 1840s during the low point of medical education in this country that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog. Their entry had several causes including a growing women’s suffrage movement and the increased popularity of the public health reform movement that had a large female contingency. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female graduate from a medical school when she received her M.D. degree from Geneva Medical College in 1849.

One could easily presume that the entrance of women into the medical professions was due to a rise of progressive ideas, but the 1840s was not a socially progressive era. Meryl Justin argues that a Victorian morality helped women enter the field. Extreme modesty and propriety caused women of the period to not want to submit to physical examinations from male physicians, sometimes to the point of not receiving necessary medical treatment. Women could therefore treat other women and propriety could be maintained. Still, many people believed the profession was too indelicate for female sensibilities.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's diploma.
Women were therefore often segregated in women-only medical schools and had great difficulty obtaining work after graduation. Many medical schools remained closed to women well into the twentieth century. Even the Flexner Report remained hesitant to fully accept women in medical education when it concluded that “[w]omen have no apparent a function in certain specialties.” Many felt they should be relegated to the traditionally feminine spheres: treatment of women and children. Still, the report asserted that coeducational medical schools were preferable to schools separated by sex. After many of the Flexner Report reforms were enacted, the number of women’s medical schools dropped from seven in 1910 to only one in 1930. The percentage of female graduates also dropped and would not rise above five percent until the 1970s.

Alice Baker was thus one of a small number of female medical students in the 1940s. I will look at some of the other gender issues in The Courtship of Two Doctors soon.


American Association of Medical Colleges. “Table 1: Medical Students, Selected Years, 1965-2010,” Data and Analysis.
Barkin, Shari L., Elena Fuentes-Afflick, Jeffrey P. Brosco, and Arleen M. Tuchman, “Unintended Consequences of the Flexner Report: Women in Pediatrics.” Pediatrics 126, no. 6 (December 2010): 1055-7.

Bonner, Thomas Neville. To the Ends of the Earth: Women’s Search for Education in MedicineCambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Calman, Kenneth C. Medical Education: Past, Present, and Future: Handing on Learning. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Martha Holoubek, ed. The Courtship of Two Doctors: A 1930s Love Story of Letters, Hope & Healing. Shreveport: Little Dove, 2012.

Flexner, Abraham. Medical Education in the United States and Canada: A Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1910.

Justin, Meryl S. “The Entry of Women into Medicine in America: Education and Obstacles 1847-1910.” Synthesis 4, no. 3 (1978): 31-44.

Pigeard-Micault, Natalie “A History of Women’s Entrance into Medicine,” translated by Karine Debbasch. Bibliotheque Numerique Medic.

Smith, James J. and Lucy S. Shaker. Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A History of American Medical Education. Chicago: Adams Press, 2003.


  1. I appreciate all the references! ... You will have noted in "Courtship of Two Doctors" that Alice Baker and Joe Holoubek applied together for graduate training at Mayo Clinic. I believe that applying as a couple was a strategic mistake. Mayo did award fellowships to women, but they were single at the time. It was widely assumed that married women would leave the work force to bear children, and therefore waste an expensive education.
    -Martha Fitzgerald, editor, "The Courtship of Two Doctors"

    1. Thank you for your comments! Applying to graduate training as a couple is very challenging today, and it seems even moreso then. I'm glad it all worked out so well for them in the end!