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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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RESTORING THE BALANCE


More: Tracking women physicians

"But what about the women?"

It was back in 1978, and Ellen More '69 (Mas), '70 (PhD) was teaching an undergraduate course at Rochester in the history of the American medical profession. And her students' question about the women was the one that stumped her.

"I didn't know about early women physicians," More says. Nor, as she found out, did many other people. "There was just one book on the subject out at the time," she recalls.

More, then a doctoral student in history, was intrigued. She started to do research at the Medical Center's Edward G. Miner Library, "and I began to feel this was where my future would be," she remembers.

It was at Miner that she began uncovering a rich trove concerning female trailblazers in medicine--starting with Sarah Adamson Dolley, the third woman medical graduate in the United States (in 1851) and the first to complete an internship (in 1852).

Dolley, as it happened, graduated from medical school in Rochester, some 75 years before the University's own medical school was established here. Her alma mater: the short-lived Central Medical College that was founded in Syracuse and relocated briefly in Rochester before it closed in 1852.

Dolley and her physician husband both practiced in Rochester until his early death. She then continued on her own as a single mother, forging an increasingly prominent career at a time when about 3 percent of American physicians were women.

It was women like Dolley, who were practicing medicine from the late 19th century and into the 20th, who took scalpel in hand and began scraping away at a wall of prejudice that had persisted for some 500 years. (More points out that although women had practiced medicine and surgery since the earliest recorded times, their participation had been increasingly repressed from the Renaissance through the middle of the 19th century.)

Now, after 20 years of marked increases, the number of women entering medical school has stabilized, and experts predict that women ultimately will count for about 40 percent of the profession.

This revolution, however--like any other--has come with a price, as More details in her new book, Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine, 1850-1995 (Harvard University Press, 1999). That price, she says, is the struggle for women physicians, as with other "career women," to find a balance between their professional and personal lives. Dolley struggled with it in her time, and women continue to grapple with the issue today.

But the author did more than unearth the common problems that have besieged women physicians. She also found some common solutions.

"Probably the biggest surprise came in finding the importance of mentors to women doctors' success, even in the 1890s," she says. For example, Dolley was a crucial source of support to others in the Rochester medical community. But perhaps what was even more eye-opening was the prevalence of male mentors as well. "When no senior women were around, junior women who succeeded did it with the help and encouragement of male mentors," she says. Such sources of strength and support--male as well as female--can provide assistance for 21st-century women doctors, too, she believes.

Aside from the difficulties, these breakthrough years also were shaped by great accomplishments. "Even at a time when women were radically underrepresented in medicine, they still made singular contributions to the field," More says.


Calderone: Prime example

One of her prime examples is Mary Steichen Calderone '39M (MD), who died in 1998 a few months after being inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Calderone was medical director of Planned Parenthood from 1953 to 1964, a period that saw the first oral contraceptive licensed for use. She also was a principal founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (commonly known as SIECUS), and, as More writes, "became the standard bearer for honesty in the education of children on sexuality." Calderone's influence was so great, More says, that she plans to devote her next book to Calderone's work.

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