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.)
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.|
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. https://www.aamc.org/download/170248/data/2010_table1.pdf.
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 Medicine. Cambridge, 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. http://www.bium.univ-paris5.fr/histmed/medica/femmesmed_va.htm#_ftnref24.
Smith, James J. and Lucy S. Shaker. Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A History of American Medical Education. Chicago: Adams Press, 2003.