On The Shoulders of Giants
♀ A sepia print of an Indian woman, a Japanese woman and a woman from Syria, dated 1885. What do they have in common? Extraordinarily, each was the first licensed female medical doctor in their country of origin. They were trained at the Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania, the first of its kind in the country. This was a time before women had the right to vote. If they did attend college at all, it was at the risk of contracting “neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria, and other derangements of the nervous system” (according to Harvard gynecologist Edward H. Clarke).
♀ An all-woman medical school was first proposed in 1846, supported by the Quakers and the feminist movement. Dr. Ellwood Harvey, one of the early teaching faculty, daringly smuggled out a slave, Ann Maria Weems, dressed as a male buggy driver, from right outside the White House. With his reward money, he bought his students a papier maché dissection mannequin. Eventually, poverty forced him to quit teaching, but he still helped out with odd jobs. What a magnificent man!
♀ Fate and fortune were to buffet Ms. Joshi’s life. Married at age 9 to a man 11 years older, her husband turned out to be surprisingly progressive. After she lost her first child at age 14, she vowed to render to her “poor suffering country women the true medical aid they so sadly stand in need of and which they would rather die than accept at the hands of a male physician”. She was first offered a scholarship by a missionary on condition that she converted to Christianity. When she demurred, a wealthy socialite from New Jersey stepped in and financed her education. She is believed to be the first Hindu woman to set foot on American soil. I didn’t arrive until 1983 😉
♀ Times were tough then. The fate of these three intrepid pioneers was a sad one. Joshi died of tuberculosis in India at the age of 21, without ever practicing. Fittingly, her husband sent her ashes back to America. Islambouli was not heard of again, likely because she was never allowed to practice in her home country. Although Okami rose to the position of head of gynecology at a Tokyo hospital, she resigned two years later when the Emperor of Japan refused to meet her because she was a woman.
♀ Times have changed. My own mother was married at the age of 13 to a man also 11 years her senior. My father recalls helping my mother with her geography homework in high school. She never did attend college, despite being a charismatic woman with quicksilver wit and efficiency. Little wonder then, when I was accepted into graduate school in the US, unmarried and 21 years young, my parents staunchly stood behind me against the dire predictions of friends and relatives (“She’ll come back with a yellow haired American!” “Haven’t you read Cosmopolitan magazine? They are all perverts there!”). Happily, I escaped perversion, earned my doctoral degree and even gained a supportive spouse of my own. In 2004, I became only the 103rd woman to be promoted to Professor in the 111-year history of the Johns Hopkins medical school, and the first in my department, the oldest Physiology department in the country. If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.