Women in medicine - 100 years

September 26, 2016

This fall marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the first women admitted to Yale’s School of Medicine. I invite you to celebrate this milestone and reflect with me on its significance—both for Yale’s history and for understanding the importance of inclusion in an intellectual community such as ours. 

First we should consider why women were excluded from medical education in the early twentieth century. It hadn’t always been this way. Women have long been caregivers and healers in many societies, and for centuries midwives were the most common healthcare providers, ushering new life into the world and helping women survive childbirth. Even in the nineteenth century, women were well represented at a number of “eclectic” and homeopathic schools in the United States, as Susan J. Baserga (Yale B.A. ’80, M.D., Ph.D. ’88), Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, of Genetics and of Therapeutic Radiology, explains in her excellent history of coeducation at the Yale School of Medicine. Yet as the study of medicine became more scientific and professionalized, women were increasingly unwelcome in its halls. By the end of the nineteenth century, all major university medical schools except Johns Hopkins excluded women. 

But changes were underway—not only at Yale but in American society more broadly. In 1915 the American Medical Women’s Association was established to advance the cause of women in the medical profession. That same year President Woodrow Wilson made headlines when he announced that he would vote in favor of the women’s suffrage referendum on the ballot in his home state of New Jersey. 

Here on Yale’s campus, an unexpected gift was the catalyst for change. In 1916 Professor of Economics Henry Farnam (Yale B.A. 1874, M.A. 1876) offered to pay “the expenses of suitable lavatory arrangements” for women if they were admitted to the School of Medicine. Apparently the cost of providing bathrooms for female students was considered an impediment to their admission, and Farnam wanted to remove this stumbling block. Later that year, three women were admitted to the medical school’s incoming class, including Farnam’s daughter Louise. 

Considered the first woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine (her name appeared before her classmate Helen May Scoville), Louise Farnam graduated from Vassar and received her doctorate from Yale in Physiological Chemistry in 1916. She graduated cum laude from the School of Medicine and received the Campbell Gold Prize, an award given to the student with the highest scores on final examinations. After completing additional training in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, she traveled to Changsha, China, where she worked at a hospital established by the Yale-in-China Association. She worked in China for over a decade, providing essential medical care as war and revolution swept the country. Contemporaries from her time at Yale remembered calling the women’s bathroom the “Louise Farnam Memorial,” but her influence—and that of her fellow female trailblazers—was certainly far more sweeping and enduring.

Pioneering women like Louise Farnam forever changed medical education at Yale. Today more than half of our medical students are female. Women are a vital part of our faculty and laboratories, making it difficult to imagine the days before coeducation. Today female faculty are making critical advances in our understanding of how the Zika virus is transmitted, how to develop better vaccines, and how to help patients survive and thrive after a trip to the intensive care unit, just to name a few recent studies from the last month. 

As we celebrate this rich history, we also acknowledge the obstacles that still remain for women in medicine. In 2014 the Ad Hoc Task Force on Gender Equity was created to identify and address these challenges at Yale, particularly in terms of female faculty advancement. At the School of Medicine, we are examining and overhauling our hiring practices, mentoring programs, and salary structures. In addition, the School of Medicine is currently conducting a national search for a Chief Diversity Officer—an important next step in fulfilling our commitment to diversity and inclusion.

For one hundred years women have made tremendous contributions to medicine at Yale. It is thrilling to think what the next century will bring. I am hopeful that the School of Medicine will continue to build on the promise and dedication of those first women who led the way.