New England Female Medical College

September 17, 2011

The world’s first medical college for women was established in the United States in 1848. Originally the school was called the Boston Female Medical College, but later the name was changed to the New England Female Medical College. The school first opened its doors in 1848 and immediately enrolled 12 women in its first class. By 1850 all 12 women graduated with medical degrees and began practicing medicine. Among the graduating 12 was Rebecca Lee, the first African American woman to become a physician in the United States. The New England Female Medical College was founded with the ultimate goal of educating women in obstetrics and gynecology.

The establishment of a medical school for women stirred up an enormous amount of controversy. At the time there was a common misbelief that women could never become doctors because all women had certain characteristics that made them ill-suited for the role of a physician. Male leaders in medicine attributed these characteristics to a woman’s inability to make decisions, lack of rational judgment, emotional instability, lack of stamina, and biological inferiority.

Nonetheless, social reform helped women in their struggle to become doctors, since there was a need in society for women to care for the poor, children, and other women. In addition, society became more accepting of women taking on significant roles in the areas of sanitation, personal hygiene, and diet. Furthermore, the women’s suffrage movement had just begun and it fueled the momentum for women’s physicians.

Although the New England Female Medical College allowed women to study medicine, the curriculum still oppressed women. The basic medical curriculum was limited in its focus, which was only on obstetrics and gynecology. Samuel Gregory, the school’s founder, was the leader of a crusade against men delivering babies because he believed it was immoral for men to be involved in the birth process. His intention for creating the school was to train women only as midwife physicians rather than true physicians.

The next obstacle a woman with medical degrees had to overcome was a lack of adequate clinical training. Many hospitals denied female medical students the opportunity to obtain clinical experience. Further, even if a hospital did permit female students to do a clinical rotation, the students were still limited to obstetrics and gynecology. This forced many women to go overseas for clinical training. The expense of such an endeavor
discouraged many women from pursuing medicine. Furthermore, medical societies refused to give women physicians a medical license. In an effort to discourage the training of women, any male physician who taught or consulted with women physicians was threatened with loss of his medical license.

To enroll in the New England Female Medical College, a woman had to have an English education and submit a medical thesis. The 3-year medical program required 30 hours of instruction per week over a period of 17 weeks. During the last 2 years the student was required to do a preceptorship under a supervising physician.

In 1874, the New England Female Medical College made an offer to merge the school with Harvard Medical School. However, Harvard rejected the offer because its board believed women should not be doctors. After 26 years of training women physicians to deliver babies, in 1873 the school merged with the Boston University School of Medicine, creating one of the first coeducational medical schools in the world.

Although there has been progress for women in medicine in the last century, women are still underrepresented in medicine. By 1979 only 10% of the physicians in the United States were women. This disparity led to the American Medical Association’s Outreach Program for Women Physicians, which focused on the recruitment of women physicians to medical leadership positions. Today, this program has been expanded and now includes the Women Physicians Congress. As a result, medical student enrollment among females is quickly rising. In 2002, 45.7% of enrolled medical students were women. Despite the increased enrollment, only 24.6% of physicians in the United States today are women. Another disparity is that women physicians, on average, make $45,000 less than their male counterparts.

Women are also underrepresented in academic medicine. For instance, in academic medicine, when comparing the makeup of medical school faculties, on average there are only 21 women per 161 men. In addition, only 7.5% of medical school department chairs are held by women and only 4 of the 125 U.S. medical schools have women as deans.

The creation of the New England Female Medical College was a landmark event for women in medicine. The school not only allowed women to obtain their medical degrees but was also key in the creation of one of the first coeducation medical schools in the world. Undoubtedly, there has been much progress for women in medicine since the mid-1800s. However, much more work remains. Women are still significantly underrepresented in the practice of medicine, academic medicine, and other medical leadership positions. Even as we have entered the new millennium efforts to advance women in medicine are still needed.

SEE ALSO: Discrimination, Education, Midwifery, Pregnancy, Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania

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