Friday, September 2, 2011

Educating Women Physicians: A Fort Wayne Tradition!

To no one's surprise, approximately one half of medical students today are women. Until only some thirty years ago, however, women had very limited opportunities to enter the profession. Not many people know that Fort Wayne had a medical school that was an exception to the general rule of excluding female students. From its opening in 1876 until it merged with Central College of Physicians and Surgeons in Indianapolis to form the Medical College of Purdue University in 1905, the Fort Wayne College of Medicine publicly advertised its acceptance of women on the same basis as male students.

The board of trustees and faculty took a great risk with this admission policy. Women of the period were generally considered intellectually inferior. Medical schools were afraid that female students would drive male students away and thus be a financial drain. They were already plagued with scandals over dissection of cadavers, even grave robbing. Furthermore, many people thought that by studying nude bodies in the presence of men, women would lose their femininity and invite sexual harassment. Even if they obtained medical training, women physicians were generally shunned by their male peers. What were the leaders of Fort Wayne Medical College thinking?

General clues for this bold policy rest with three of the college's founders, the Rev. Reuben Davisson Robinson, and Drs. Willam H. Myers and Christian B. Stemen. All were on record as supporters of women's education. Rev. Robinson, the former minister of Wayne Street Methodist Church, had served as president of the co-educational Fort Wayne Methodist College from 1855 to 1866. Dr. Myers was known as an early advocate of women's rights. At the first meeting in Fort Wayne to promote woman suffrage held in 1871, Dr. Myers announced that he had become a convert. In 1883, when the Indiana Medical Society debated admission of women to the Indiana Medical College, Dr. Myers advocated what was still a minority position. "Our college has always admitted ladies, and we have suffered no inconveniences from their presence," he told his colleagues. "I think they have had a salutary influence upon the gentlemen they met there." Finally, Dr. Christian Stemen demonstrated by personal example his support for women physicians by mentoring his daughter, Harriet Stemen Macbeth, as a medical student and practicing physician.

Fort Wayne Medical College always had a small enrollment. Perhaps its most illustrious female student was Alice Hamilton. At the beginning of her internationally recognized career as a trailblazer for industrial medicine, she took advantage of the college to brush up on science and medicine prior to her acceptance in medical school at the Univeersity of Michigan. She gained experience in the college's clinic serving poor workers on the city's west side.

Of the women graduates who remained in Fort Wayne, most is known about Dr. Harriet Macbeth and her niece by marriage, Dr. Bertha Goba Macbeth. Both served the growing industrial city and its surrounding communities for many years. Following practices of the day, they visited patients in their homes. When money was scarce, patients showed their appreciation with chickens and farm produce.

When we drive by the grand old building on Superior Street that was the last home for the Fort Wayne College of Medicine, we can feel proud. In the long history of women in medicine, Fort Wayne was ahead of its day.

1 comment:

  1. Rev. R. D. Robinson came from a family that valued education. Several of his sisters and brothers attended Fort Wayne College and two or three of them also taught there for a time. R.D. Robinson was a graduate of Indiana Asbury (DePauw) and had considered a career in Medicine after his graduation but joined the ministry before completing his medical training in Lafayette.