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  • Remarkable Women: American Women in Ophthalmology

    This exhibit explores the history of medical education for women in America, the early pioneers, and activists. It highlights books, instruments, and audiovisual material found in the museum's collection.

    Early Women in American Medicine

    An oval-shaped, black and white photograph of an older woman in a black dress. She is a white woman with white or gray hair, and she wears a black dress, a lace collar, and a black cloth veil. She is looking past the camera, to the right.
    Elizabeth Blackwell, MD

    Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman in the United States to earn her medical degree; she graduated from the Geneva Medical School in 1849. Before the end of the century, U.S. women had opportunities to study medicine at both all-female and co-educational medical schools. However, despite their medical educations, these early practitioners had difficulty obtaining hospital privileges. Either due to professional or societal pressures, practices run by female physicians were often charitable infirmaries; treating the poor and frequently limited to the care of women and children.

    Effects of the Flexner Report

    In 1910, the American Medical Association published the Flexner Report – a survey of medical schools conducted by Abraham Flexner on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation. The report condemned American medical education as inadequate and, as a result, there was a 46% decrease in the number of all medical schools available in the United States by 1920. As the number of slots decreased, medical schools openly stated preferences for male students to increase prestige. By 1914, only 4% of all medical students were women.

    Civil Rights Reform

    Two pages of a typed document with signatures on it. The paper is aged, and has tape down the spine of the document. There are typed lines of text, several signatures, and three blue square stamps with check marks in them.
    Civil Rights Act of 1964

    U.S. women returned to medicine in real numbers only after two landmark pieces of legislation. The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. The second was the Education Amendments of 1972, specifically Title IX, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program or activity. When the law was passed in 1972, only 9% of all medical degrees were going to women. Today, women earn nearly half of all medical degrees in the United States.

    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

    A black and white photograph of a older woman. She has light skin and white curly hair pulled back in a 19th century style. She is wearing a black robe over white dress.
    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

    A black and white illustration of a three story brick building. There are trees on either side of the building, and a black horse drawn carriage is pictured in front of the building. The text across the bottom of the images reads: First Woman's Medical College Building, as it appeared as it appeared at the first commencement in 1850, located at 229 (Old Number) Arch Street, below seventh.
    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.

    In AAO
    A sepia-toned photograph of a group of men in suits with one, lone woman sitting in the middle of the group. The men all wear dark suits with ribbons pinned to the lapels. The woman in the center has dark, middle-parted hair in an early twentieth century hairstyle, and she wears a white lace dress. She is looking directly into the camera.
    Unknown Female Physician at 1911 AAO Meeting

    When the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology was founded in 1896, membership was restricted only by education and years of medical practice. The bylaws made no mention of gender or race restrictions. Research into the historical records reveals that the first female member was either Alice Ewing, MD or Mary Hollister, MD.

    Dr. Alice Ewing

    At the third meeting of the Academy, the program lists a paper presented by Alice Ewing, MD (1850-1902). There is no membership roll for 1898, so it is not possible to know if Dr. Ewing was a member of the Academy, but she was the first woman to present a paper at an AAOO meeting. We also know that Dr. Ewing was an ENT specialist out of Chicago. She earned her medical degree at Northwestern University Women’s Medical School in 1894 and in her paper, she stated that she had studied in Vienna.

    Dr. Mary Hollister

    The first female ophthalmologist listed on the Academy’s membership rolls is Mary C. Hollister, MD. She was a member between 1903 and 1905. Dr. Hollister also earned her medical degree from Northwestern University Women’s Medical School. After graduating in 1882, she interned at the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children and then opened a private, general practice in Iowa. Later she returned to Chicago and for five years she was assistant surgeon at the Illinois Charitable Eye and Ear Infirmary. By 1896 she is listed as an instructor in ophthalmology and otology in the Women’s Medical School and an attending oculist and aurist at the Mary Thompson Hospital for Women and Children.
    Laura A. Lane, MD
    A purple silhouette of a woman with long hair. The silhouette is in profile, and she is looking towards the left with her hand on her chin, in a curious posture. She has long, straight hair to the middle of her back.
    Dr. Lane (1880-1960) was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, established in 1913. In 1917, Dr. Lane passed the second examinations ever held by the American Board of Ophthalmology, making her the first woman to become certified in ophthalmology and any medical speciality in the United States. 

    Georgiana Dvorak-Theobold, MD

    A zoomed-in black and white photograph of a woman sitting between two men. The men are wearing dark suits. She is a middle aged white woman wearing a gray suit with a brooch and a black, wide-brimmed hat. She is clasping her hands in her lap and looking directly into the camera.
    Ophthalmic Pathology Club, 1947

    Dr. Dvorak-Theobold (1884-1971) was an ophthalmic pathologist who spent her career at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary, Chicago, starting in 1915. In 1957, Dr. Dvorak-Theobold was the first woman to receive the Howe Medal from the American Ophthalmological Society. She is one of only four women who have been given that honor.

    Olga Ferrer, MD
    A black and white photograph of a smiling woman in profile. She has light skin and dark curled hair, and she wears a black dress with a pearl necklace. She is looking at someone off-camera and smiling.
    Dr. Ferrer (1919-2007) was born in Cuba. She completed one year of medical school in the United States before returning to Cuba and receiving her medical degree from the University of Havana in 1943.  Dr. Ferrer became a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology in 1958 and was offered the position of Associate Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Miami in 1960. 

    Image: Howard Palmatier giving a diploma to Olga Ferrer, MD at the Lincoln-Marti awards, 1973. Courtesy of the University of Miami Libraries, Cuban Heritage Collection

    Patricia Bath, MD
    A colored photograph of a Black woman wearing a suit. She has dark skin and long black straight hair. She is wearing a black suit and a white blouse, and pearl earrings, and red lipstick. She has an award ribbon around her neck that is red, green, and black.
    Dr. Bath (1942-2019)
    was a specialist in cornea and cataract surgery. She was inducted into the International Women in Medicine Hall of Fame towards the end of her career.

    Helena Fedukowicz, MD
    A black and white photograph of a group of eight men and woman wearing lab coats. The woman who is second from left is wearing a white lab coat and a white cap over her dark hair.
    She is Front Row, Second From Left

    Dr. Fedukowicz (1900–1998) is pictured here after training as an ophthalmologist in what is today Kyiv, Ukraine. During WWII, she and her husband became refugees from the then Soviet Union and eventually entered the United States in 1950. Dr. Fedukowicz then became a professor at New York University and Director of ophthalmic bacteriology at Bellevue Hospital in New York. She wrote the classic text, “External Infections of the Eye” in 1963.

    Helenor Campbell Wilder Foerster
    A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a dark suit. She has light skin and black hair, and she is wearing dark lipstick. She looks directly in to the camera.
    Helenor Campbell Wilder Foerster (1895-1998) created the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology’s eye, ear, nose, and throat pathology registry. She then went on to become Chief of the Ophthalmic Pathology Section of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP). She was given the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest civilian award of the Department of Defense. At the ceremony, she was cited for her achievement in discovering ocular taxoplasmosis. Mrs. Foerster did not have a medical degree but was showered with honors and awards from the ophthalmic community during her career, including honorary membership in AAO.

    Ida C. Mann, MD
    A purple silhouette of a woman with long hair. The silhouette is in profile, and she is looking towards the left with her hand on her chin, in a curious posture. She has long, straight hair to the middle of her back.
    Dame Ida C. Mann (1893-1983) studied at the London School of Medicine for Women, the only medical school in England open to female students in the early 1900s. During her career, she studied embryology of the eye and the treatment of mustard gas burns. In 1945 she became the first female professor of ophthalmology at Oxford University. In 1950 she moved to Australia where she studied treatment for trachoma. She was named Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1980 for services for the welfare of indigenous Australians.
    Since 1985, the Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye has been building a collection of audio and visual materials including photographs, videos, vinyl records, and cassette tapes. There are 133 interviews of significant figures in the history of medicine, nineteen of which are female. Drs. Eleanor Faye, Alice McPherson, and Eve Higginbotham are a small representation of the memories and history this collection contains.

    Eleanor E. Faye, MD

    A black and white photograph of an older white woman. She has grey, curled hair and she wears a silky blouse with a pussy bow collar and a pair of eyeglasses.
    “I applied to Stanford Medical School and at that time I think there were something like 3,000 applicants for two spaces for women. They took only two women. They thought nothing of it, and we thought nothing of it. Everyone said, ‘Okay, two women, I hope I’m one of the two.’

    [Afterward] what got me into Manhattan Eye and Ear as the first woman resident was Mrs. Breckinridge. Townley Paton said, ‘We’ve never had a woman before,’ and Mrs. Breckinridge said, ‘Well, this is the time, this is it.”

     -Interview of Eleanor E. Faye, MD conducted by Gwen Sterns, MD, May 2014

    Alice R. McPherson, MD
    A black and white photograph of a woman wearing a tweed suit. She is a older white woman with light hair. She wears a tweed jacket and a black blouse with a string of pearls.
    “I realized that women were not being accepted as referral surgeons out East. They respected me as a colleague, but it was just not possible for a young woman. So, I went to Texas. They were open minded and the older men, the older ophthalmologists, were willing to refer cases to sort of a young squirt out of Boston.”

    -A Conversation Between Alice R. McPherson, MD and H. Dunbar Hoskins, MD, October 2009

    Eve J. Higginbotham, MD
    A black and white photograph of a middle aged Black woman. She has dark skin and short black hair, and she is wearing a paisley silk scarf around her neck and large geometrically shaped earrings.
    “Mathea Allansmith at Harvard Medical School [was] an extraordinary role model because she had a very active laboratory…held a faculty appointment…had a practice at Beth Israel and was the mother of six children. Thus, she seemed to have it all and seemed to love it all. And I thought, if this is a field that allows you to have such a full existence, this is a field that I really want to learn more about.”

     -A Conversation Between Eve J. Higginbotham, MD and Patricia Bath, MD, October 2011