Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mary Putnam Jacobi, Physician and Writer

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, via Library of Congress
Written by Jill M. Staake

Born: August 31, 1842, London
Died: June 10, 1906, New York

S.T.E.A.M. Powers

  • First female student at the École de Médecine, University of Paris
  • Organized the Women's Medical Association of New York City
  • Published fiction along with important medical studies and women's suffrage writings

Her Story

In August 2015, Senator Elizabeth Warren stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate to make an impassioned speech in defense of the organization Planned Parenthood. One passage caught the country's attention particularly:“Do you have any idea what year it is?” she demanded scathingly. “Did you fall down, hit your head and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s? Should we call for a doctor?”

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, who had died more than 100 years earlier, would doubtless have cheered Warren's speech. Dr. Jacobi certainly would have been thrilled to see a female senator in a position to defend women's health care rights, since she herself spent her later years devoted to demanding the right for women to vote and participate in the political process. But she would have most likely been disappointed to realize that, more than a century later, women's health remained a subject about which so many are still so uninformed. Senator Warren was facing a room of men with the same ignorant ideology that Dr. Jacobi had faced her entire career. But like Senator Warren, Dr. Jacobi was determined to make her voice, and her scientific knowledge, heard.

Literature First
Born in 1842 in London, Mary (called Minnie by her family) Putnam moved with her family back to their home, New York City, when she was quite young. Mary's father, George, was a publisher, founding the company which is known today as G. P. Putnam & Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing. Mary was first educated mainly at home by her mother, whose primary interest was in instilling a love of great literature in her daughter. Mary began writing at a young age, and by the age of 16 had written a piece of short fiction, Found and Lost, which her father considered good enough to be published. She received $80 for the piece when it was published in Atlantic Monthly in 1860.

Mary enjoyed writing, but had a much greater curiosity about the world around her. After spending two years at a new public school for girls and graduating in 1859, she began to study Greek and science with private tutors. But perhaps the most important part of her early education came from time spent studying medicine with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who just ten years earlier was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

Mary Putnam as a medical student
The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute,
Harvard University, photograph by Bogardus
Liberté, Égalité, and Medical Studies
Medicine and its study became the driving force in Mary's life. She served as a medical aide during the Civil War, and received degrees from the New York College of Pharmacy and the Female (later "Women's") Medical College of Pennsylvania. After a short time of practicing medicine, Dr. Putnam (as she was now entitled to be called) decided she needed more study to be truly effective. She headed to Paris in 1866 to request admittance at the École de Médecine of the University of Paris.

Women in medicine were no more common in France than in the U.S. at the time, and the men of the profession seemed unsure of how to treat her. When Mary asked to be admitted to a dissection room, the professor agreed - if she would dress in men's clothing. Mary, of course, found this to be ridiculous. She refused, and was allowed to attend dressed as she saw fit. The professor was impressed with her, and later supported her application to the École de Médecine itself, making her the first woman admitted. (She would later become the second woman to graduate.)

The Question of Rest
Mary returned from Paris and took an especial interest in the Women's Medical College where she had studied. Mary and others felt standards there were not as high as they should be, and she joined in the effort to make the school a respected place of learning for women interested in medicine. Dr. Emily Blackwell later said:
It was at the time of the greatest difficulty and discouragement for women students and practitioners...It was at this opportune moment that Dr Putnam arrived... She brought as her contribution to the new work an enthusiastic love of the scientific side of medicine and a high standard of medical education...To many of the women students flocking to New York she was an inspiration, and not a few of them owed to her their first conception of the breadth and serious importance of the great field of medicine to which they were seeking entrance...She was an unsparing and outspoken critic of shallow knowledge, slip shod methods, and hollow pretence in any shape.
A reprint of Dr. Clarke's study
Read the full study here.
But as Dr. Putnam was working to win respect for women seeking education in fields like medicine, others were continuing to insist women simply weren't capable of higher education at all. In 1873, Dr. Edward H. Clarke of Harvard published Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. Despite the title, there was nothing "fair" about Clarke's conclusions. He claimed that women who didn't rest during menstruation would damage their reproductive organs. Therefore, he argued, women were unable to compete in higher education and professional careers without doing themselves harm.

Mary, who by now had married pioneering pediatrician Dr. Abraham Jacobi, knew these claims were hogwash. What's more, she set about proving Dr. Clarke wrong, using the best scientific and research methods available to her at the time. She spent more than a year producing a 200-page study, The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation, published in 1876. The National Library of Medicine website notes, "Dr. Jacobi provided tables, statistics, and sphygmographic tracings of pulse rate, force, and variations to illustrate the stability of a woman's health, strength, and agility throughout her monthly cycle. Both her paper and her example offered irrefutable proof of the accuracy of her position." Her work won her respect from her peers - and the Boylston Prize from Harvard University.

Jacobi's work; full text available here
Votes for Women
Throughout her busy and varied medical career, Mary remained interested in the betterment of society in general, giving lectures to working women and helping them organize the Working Women's Society. In 1894, that general interest turned to a specific passion for a woman's right to vote, eventually leading to the publishing of another major work, Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage. Once again, she applied research and hard facts to make her case. She examined the 15th Amendment in detail and traced the history of women's education, legal status, and marital rights. She concluded toward the end of the book:
The extreme ignorance of the subject shown in the written protests... are natural to the inexperience of people who begin to talk volubly about what they themselves profess to have hardly ever thought. The gist of the opposition lies chiefly in the dread of innovation... an instinct intensified, moreover, by innumerable forces of tradition, training, and environment. Opposition to what is new, necessarily subsides so soon as the new has become the customary... Let the women try their hand! (Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage, p. 192)
Mary used more refined words than Senator Elizabeth Warren did over a century later, but the basic ideas remain the same. Let women decide what is best for women - and learn the facts before you open your mouth to speak.

What She Won, She Won Fairly
Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi displayed a true interest in exploring and understanding the world around her throughout her entire life, and that quality was to carry her along right to the end of her years. She died in 1906 of a brain tumor, but rather than spending her final days lamenting her time cut short, she instead continued her work. Her final publication was titled Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself.

Her eulogy to herself might have been cold and clinical in nature, but those speaking at her memorial, held in early 1907, were much more eloquent. They spoke of her own education and determination to allow other women the same and better opportunities. They praised her scientific mind and open heart. A fellowship was already planned in her name to continue the fine work she had begun. Dr. Charles L. Dana, one of her colleagues, explained how she had earned respect for herself and for all deserving women in the future:
[I]t was her character and the influence upon the community of such a woman following the profession of medicine that will constitute her greatest memorial. Dr Jacobi was a woman with talents almost amounting to genius, joined to the highest ideals in the practice of her art and in the conduct of life. Therefore that such a woman became a doctor, ennobled the calling and made it an easier and more dignified thing for women later to follow it. This is what we medical men all felt about her, irrespective of her specific scientific accomplishments.

We all liked Dr Jacobi very much as a woman and as a woman physician She had no pettiness or jealousies that we could ever discover. I never heard her speak harshly of any one and I never heard any one speak harshly of her. What she won she won fairly and because her talents commanded it and we recognized it.

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