In Medical Schools
In the 19th century, the best ophthalmic education was in Europe, and many women sought out the co-educational medical schools abroad for their degrees. Women who could not afford a European education often started at all-female medical schools, and then found additional opportunities to pursue ophthalmology.
The Zurich Connection
Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows, MD
If women could afford it, the medical school at the University of Zurich was a particular destination for ophthalmic education. It had a first-class ophthalmology department and allowed co-education starting in 1867.
One student at the University of Zurich was Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows (1845-1913). She traveled for a year, studying in Vienna, Zurich, Paris, and finally London. In 1870 she returned to America and became the first woman to practice ophthalmology in the United States. She had a private “oculist” practice in Washington DC, saw patients at Freedman’s Hospital, and lectured on eye and ear medicine at Howard University Medical College. She closed her practice after only three years to support her husband’s budding political career.
Another ophthalmologist who studied in Zurich was Elizabeth Sargent (1857-1900). When Dr. Sargent returned to her native San Francisco in 1886 after three years at the University of Zurich, she was the only female ophthalmologist in the city. Dr. Sargent chose, as many women did in the 19th century, to practice in a female centric institution. In this case, the Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children which had been founded by women physicians in 1875 and whose staff were majority female.
A Philadelphia Story
Although the best ophthalmic education in the 19th century and early 20th century was found in the clinics of Europe, not every American medical student could afford to travel overseas. The best alternatives were found in the major cities on the East Coast. For women, Philadelphia was a particular draw because of the city’s Quaker roots and their belief in equal rights.
One woman drawn to Philadelphia was Amy Barton (1841-1900). Dr. Barton earned her medical degree at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia in 1874. She then spent the next thirteen years assisting Dr. George Strawbridge at Wills Eye Hospital. Upon his retirement, she returned to her alma mater where she was named clinical professor of ophthalmology - possibly the first female in America to hold an ophthalmic professorship position.
Another graduate of the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia was Romania Penrose (1839-1932). Dr. Penrose earned her medical degree in 1877. She also took special courses with Dr. Strawbridge at Wills Eye Hospital. Dr. Penrose was the first Mormon woman from Utah to earn her medical degree and in 1882 she helped to establish the Deseret Hospital in Salt Lake City. Reportedly, Dr. Penrose was the first physician to perform cataract surgery in Utah.