Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania

September 29, 2011

Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMC), widely but erroneously called “Women’s,” was founded as The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1850, and renamed in 1867. With the support of Philadelphia-area Quaker physicians and businessman-philanthropist William J. Mullen, the College was incorporated, in the era of reform movements for women’s rights, improved health care, and the abolition of slavery, for the purpose of instructing females in the science and art of medicine. Prominent Quaker activist of the time, Lucretia Mott, advocating for educational opportunities to enable women to participate equally in compassionate works of social reform, stated that a mind has no sex. Women were still virtually excluded from medical education, and Woman’s Medical College provided an environment free of male domination in which women could study and practice medicine with other women, while it promoted the health of women and their children through education and clinical care.

As at other medical schools of the era, 2 years of study with a preceptor and the ability to write literary English were required for admission. The first curriculum included lectures and dissection, with students attending lectures for about 5 months in the fall and winter. Clinical experience was provided initially at the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia, founded by Quaker women including Ann Preston, a member of the College’s first class and later dean of the College. The financial hardship of the early years was to become an enduring problem.

Although the founding board of directors and the first faculty were composed entirely of men, the women of the Medical College were not readily accepted into mainstream (male) Philadelphia medicine. The Philadelphia County Medical Society held that women were unfit for the practice of medicine, and enjoined its members from professional dealings with college professors or graduates. Graduation of the first class of eight students was held with the attendance of fifty police officers to maintain order.

In 1875, the College moved into the first building designed for its own use, and initiated a period of growth, which included its being among the first medical schools in the United States to require a 4-year curriculum. Botanist and chemist Rachel Bodley (dean from 1874 to 1888) promoted the entry of women into medical missionary work, which became a tradition at the College and contributed to its reputation abroad. Anna Broomall (Woman’s Medical College graduate and professor) established an outpatient maternity service for senior students who provided maternity care to poor women of South Philadelphia and emphasized prenatal care. Clara Marshall (Woman’s Medical College graduate and dean from 1888 to 1917) expanded resources for clinical training, overseeing establishment of a hospital adjacent to the College. Woman’s Medical College established its tradition of providing a door of opportunity for women students from diverse backgrounds, including a freed slave, and students from Japan, India, and Syria.

Despite the acceptance, in the early 1900s, of a few women at previously all-male medical schools, Woman’s Medical College continued to provide a professional home for women faculty and students, while it adapted to educational reforms mandated by the 1910 Report for the Advancement of Teaching (the “Flexner Report”) to the Carnegie Foundation. By 1921, of the 19 medical schools begun for women, only Woman’s Medical College remained. Despite struggling to maintain its enrollment, in 1930, the College moved to a site in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, which continues to house clinical, research, and hospital space. The College strengthened its research program, providing a receptive environment for women scientists such as Woman’s Medical College graduate Catharine Macfarlane, a gynecologist whose research confirmed the value of periodic examinations in cancer detection, and biochemist-physiologist Phyllis Bott, whose “micropuncture” technique elucidated kidney function. The 1960s brought the ironic necessity of coeducation, required by government mandates for equal educational opportunities. Woman’s Medical College was renamed Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP), and men were first awarded the MD degree in 1972.

Financial pressure in the era of managed care precipitated the merger in 1993 of MCP with Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, to form “MCP Hahnemann School of Medicine.” In 1998, the merged medical school was placed under the management of Drexel University in Philadelphia; Drexel University College of Medicine, in the tradition of Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and Hahnemann Medical College, preserves the goals of the original school at the Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership.

The special contribution of the female sensibility to the practice of medicine is described by graduate Rosalie Slaughter-Morton in the inscription on the College’s 1916 bas relief “The Woman Physician,” by Clara Hill:

Daughter of science—pioneer, thy tenderness hath banished fear; woman and leader in thee blend, physician, surgeon, student-friend.

See Also: Blackwell, Elizabeth; Education; Feminism; Gender role; Healers; Physicians

Suggested Reading

  • Morantz-Sanchez, R. (1985). Sympathy and science: Women physicians in American medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Peitzman, S. J. (2000). A new and untried course: Woman’s Medical College and Medical College of Pennsylvania 1850-1998. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

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