Skip to main content
  • Finding San Francisco’s Female Medical Past

    This summer, the Truhlsen-Marmor Museum of the Eye® reflects on the long history of women in ophthalmology and American medicine.

    The history of women in ophthalmology takes us across the U.S., and even into Europe, but imagine our delight to find that there was a part of this history centered in the museum’s hometown of San Francisco.

    Elizabeth Sargent, MD (1857-1900), was born in California and had a remarkable family. Her father, Aaron A. Sargent, was a member of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. He was also the American ambassador to Germany. Her mother, Ellen C. Sargent, ran in the preeminent woman’s suffrage circles of the day, hosting Susan B. Anthony and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw in the family’s home in San Francisco.

    Dr. Sargent attended Howard University Medical College beginning in 1876, only four years after Howard graduated its first female physician. Medical specialty programs in America did not accept women, but women of means could pursue a world-class ophthalmic education at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which had begun accepting women a decade earlier. 

    After pursuing her studies at the University of Zurich, Dr. Sargent joined her family, now living in San Francisco, becoming the second woman to practice ophthalmology in the U.S. She practiced at a female-run clinic called the Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children.

    This clinic was initially a mystery. It no longer exists today, and we couldn’t help but ask: Where was this hospital? And what happened to it?

    After some research, we can finally place the Pacific Dispensary on the map. In 1922, in a “profusely illustrated” book about “Who’s Who Among the Women of California,” there is a small vignette about the female boards of directors that mentions a hospital run “by and for woman physicians” in San Francisco. As it turns out, the Pacific Dispensary was part of a wave of hospitals opened by female physicians across the entire country. Further reading revealed that the Pacific Dispensary opened its doors in 1875 at 520 Taylor St. in San Francisco, very close to Union Square. That location was short-lived, and the hospital was relocated to 3700 California St., still in San Francisco, in 1885.

    After the move, the Pacific Dispensary reincorporated as the Hospital for Children and Training School for Nurses. The building was grievously damaged by the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, but a new building for the hospital on the same site was completed in 1911. In the early 20th century, the hospital continued to serve specifically women and children, and it became an important center for the treatment of infantile paralysis, or polio, through the 1940s. In fact, the hospital was the first location in the western U.S. to have a Drinker respirator (or “iron lung”) installed.

    During this time, male medical students and doctors were slowly incorporated into this originally all-female institution, and the hospital removed all its restrictions on admitting male patients in 1955. By now, what was originally the small Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children had grown into the well-known Children’s Hospital of San Francisco, which provided health care to generations of San Franciscans until 1991, when it became a part of the Sutter Health System.

    Today, the 3700 California St. hospital building still provides specialty care for children, continuing to serve the original mission of forward-thinking female physicians like Dr. Sargent.

    To learn more about the history of women in ophthalmology, check out the online “Remarkable Women” exhibit.