Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Mary Putnam Jacobi, Doctor and Women's Rights Advocate

Mary Putnam as a medical student, early 1860s,
Schlesinger Library, Radcliff Institute,
Harvard University. Photograph by Bogardus
Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi was a doctor, teacher, scientist, and staunch defender of a woman's right to an education. When confronted with arguments about women being inferior or weak, she fought back with hard facts.

"No matter how well-born, how intelligent, how highly educated, how virtuous, how rich, how refined, the women of to-day constitute a political class below that of every man, no matter how base-born, how stupid, how ignorant, how vicious, how poverty-stricken, how brutal. The pauper in the almshouse may vote; the lady who devotes her philanthropic thought to making that almshouse habitable, may not. The tramp who begs cold victuals in the kitchen may vote; the heiress who feeds him and endows universities may not."

Mary Putnam was born in 1842 in London, England. Her parents were American, George Palmer Putnam and Victorine Haven Putnam, and in 1848 they returned to the U.S. with Mary, settling in New York.

When Mary was small she was home-schooled by her mother, then attended both private and public schools. By 17 she had her first article published in Atlantic Monthly (April 1860), the first of over 120 essays and works of fiction published throughout her career.

Despite holding the opinion that medicine was a "disgusting pursuit," Mary's father supported her decision to apply to the New York College of Pharmacy, and she graduated in 1863.

In 1864 she completed her M.D. at the Female (now called Women's) Medical College of Pennsylvania, having convinced the faculty to let her sit exams early, an event the school's dean, Edwin Fussell, would resign his post over. He did not agree that Mary should be given "special allowances" such as sitting her exams early, but other teachers disagreed, and he was overruled. Ann Preston, one of the teachers who argued on Mary's side, took over his position and became America's first female dean of a medical school.

Mary at medical school, circa 1860
Mary's first job practicing medicine was at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston in 1862. The hospital was founded by a friend, Marie Zakrzewska, but Mary would leave in 1866 to seek higher medical training in Paris.


Throughout her career, Mary was an outspoken advocate for the co-education of men and women, arguing that women's medical schools did not receive the same funding or offer the same level of professional training as established universities with large hospitals attached.

It was in France that Mary received the level of training she was seeking and in 1868, she became the first female student at the Ecole de Médecine in Paris. As the school was not yet used to female students, she was required to enter a door to the lecture not used by others, and to sit near the professor. Adjusting quickly to her surroundings (however strange), Mary thrived, and she graduated with honors in 1871 and received a bronze medal for her thesis.

Upon return to New York, Mary began to practice privately while also teaching at the New York Infirmary and Mount Sinai Hospital, a post she would keep for 17 years. In 1872, she organized the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women, and served as its president from 1874 to 1903.

In 1873 Mary married Dr. Abraham Jacobi. Jacobi was a researcher and pediatrician, respected and knowledgable enough to become known as "the father of American pediatrics." It was due to his influence that Mary was accepted by the most prestigious medical societies of New York, where she was the first woman to be admitted.

With all this experience in medical education and research and creating "firsts" for women everywhere, it was no surprise that Mary was a vigorous advocate for women's rights, especially in the field of education.

What's Fair

Her most well-known battle came in 1873 when Dr. Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard, published the following in Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls: 
"There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females... graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile." 
He goes on to explain in more detail why a woman's reproductive organs fail to thrive when she commits herself to matters of higher education.
"The system never does two things well at the same time. The muscles [note: muscles  = menstruation] and the brain cannot functionate in their best way at the same moment."
Essentially, Dr. Clarke was stating that a woman's body cannot handle menstruation and studying at the same time. He went on to describe the female students that resulted from these efforts of studying while also being female: "crowds of pale, bloodless, female faces" a result of the "present system of educating girls."

At that time, faculty and institutions were already opposed to women in education, and they used Dr. Clarke's publication as the ammunition they needed; why, women in education wasn't just a bad idea, it was against humanity!

Mary Jacobi wasn't standing for any of it. Having completed many years of schooling herself and never once having the slightest headache over it (as she reported with humor to her mother from France), nor being left ill or infertile, Mary was not content to simply be the embodiment of these untruths, no - she went forward and completely refuted them.

In her report The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation, Mary provided 232 pages of tables, statistics, and analysis of data to illustrate the stability of a woman's health and strength throughout her monthly cycle. The results she gathered covered monthly pain experienced, exercise, length of cycle, and considered physiological measurements like temperature, pulse, and urine samples.

To make it absolutely clear, Mary also had subjects perform strength tests before, during, and after menstruation. The paper was detailed and thorough and the findings were unflinching: "there is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity, or even the desirability of rest."

The report was greeted with some controversy, as one might expect when one is challenging a standard that has been held in place for over two hundred years. Despite this, it was awarded Harvard Medical School's esteemed Boylston Medical Prize in 1876 - ironic, as Harvard Medical School itself would not allow women as students or faculty until 1919, when they admitted Dr. Alice Hamilton as an assistant professor.

There would always be skeptics, but Mary's hefty and researched-backed response to Clarke's thin and discriminatory allegation was a big win for women seeking to get into university and the workplace. Her paper was a great influence in opening up opportunities for women to learn and teach in higher education.

A researcher at heart, Mary devoted years of her life to teaching and studying before being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and then she wrote her final report. She documented her own symptoms and provided a detailed clinical account of her condition. Her report was called, "Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written By Herself."

Mary died in 1906 at the age of 54.


"... men, accustomed to think of men as possessing sex attributes and other things besides, are accustomed to think of women as having sex, and nothing else."

... [the] special relation of women to children, in which the heart of the world has always felt there was something sacred, serves to impress upon women certain tendencies, to endow them with certain virtues which will render them of special value in public affairs.


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