HISTORY MATTERS: Ladies First

How women doctors in America — and the world — got their start in East Falls. 

From the Legacy Center archives, Drexel University College of Medicine

Philadelphia is a city known for many “firsts.” One of the lesser-known, yet still extremely important Philadelphia originals, is the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first medical school for women in the entire world.

Many of the school’s early graduates took their acquired knowledge and applied it to ailing women in parts of the world where their medical needs were largely ignored.  Take that, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman!

From its lofty position at its Queen Lane Campus in East Falls, overlooking just about all of Philadelphia, the Drexel University College of Medicine had its humble beginnings as a pioneering school for women seeking a career in the medical profession over a century-and-a-half ago.  In the early years of the College’s existence, the founders, faculty, and students had to fight prejudice and open hostility aroused by such “radicalism” as teaching medicine to women.

From the collection of Joseph Minardi

The College was chartered on March 11, 1850 as the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in the back of a large house on Arch Street, east of Seventh Street.  It was founded by a group of highly respected Philadelphians, all of whom where men, led by Dr. Joseph S. Longshore and Dr. Bartholomew Fussel.

Dr. Longshore served on the first Board of Corporators and on the first faculty.  For his bold stance on behalf of women’s rights, the good doctor was ostracized by his brethren in medicine.

The first president, William J. Mullen, a man of great means, purchased the expired lease of 627 Arch Street and remodeled the house at his own expense.  It was necessary to use the rear rooms of the houses to protect the women students from the jeers and taunts of scalawags in the front of the building.

It was not until 1850 that the founders of the College were able to assemble the necessary physical facilities, teaching staff, and student body to open the College.

The classes began with forty students, and a faculty of six male teachers.  The attitude of the medical profession toward the training of women in medicine necessarily limited the number of good physicians for the faculty.  Nine years later the Philadelphia Medical Society passed “resolutions of excommunication” against every physician graduated from the College and everybody else who consulted with its faculty.

In 1861, Dr. Ann Preston (1813-72), a member of the first graduating class, founded the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia and thus solved, in some degree, the increasingly pressing problem of clinical experience.  Women and children were admitted “without regard to their religious belief, nationality, or color.”  All hospital doors until that time had been closed against women doctors and medical students.  But here in the Woman’s Hospital the students were able to obtain practical clinical experience under the direction of qualified physicians.

In founding the hospital, Dr. Preston also provided the College with a new home.  Its teaching facilities were moved from the original Arch Street site into room rented from the hospital.  Dr. Preston ranks high among the many distinguished graduated of the Woman’s Medical College.  She was the first woman to be appointed as professor.  She was appointed to the chair of Physiology and Hygiene, and in 1867 became Dean of the Faculty.

“Darn those Socks!”

Dr. Hannah Longshore (1819-1901) was graduated in the first class, too, and was the first woman to “hang out her sign” in Philadelphia.  This great curiosity attracted street-loungers in large numbers.  Druggists refused to fill her prescriptions, and one took it upon himself to order her home to “look after her house and darn her husband’s socks.”  She ultimately established herself in a very lucrative practice.

Many graduated have served in the Armed Forces.  Their acceptance is a far cry from Civil War days, when a woman physician named Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) was permitted to treat the wounded only on the condition the she dress in male clothes to “avoid attracting attention.”  Dr. Mary Walker was also a noted abolitionist, prohibitionist, and the first (and only) woman to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“I Got an Elephant.”

Woman’s Medical College graduates have served with distinction throughout the world.  The first medical woman missionary in the world, Clara Swain (Class of 1869), went to India to aid the women there who were denied even the rudimentary medical care available to men.  Religious restrictions forbade men physicians to attend to women.

In her 27 years of missionary work in India, Dr. Swain found that it was not enough to be a physician and surgeon.  She had to double as an oculist, dentist, pharmacist, chiropodist, and practitioner in many other branches of healing arts.  Above all, however, she found it was necessary for the woman physician to disarm the suspicions not only of men, but the very women whom she had come to serve.

There were no hospitals in India to minister to women, so Dr. Swain set about establishing substituted for hospitals in “zenanas,” as the apartments for women were called in India.  She was so successful in demonstrating the value of her services to the sick that two Indian potentates, the Newab or Rampore and the Rajah of Khetri, gave her funds for the establishment of hospitals for women and children in their provinces.  Another potentate gave her an elephant.

More than 150 graduates of the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania have followed Dr. Swain into the medical mission field.  Among them are such famous women as Dr. Lucinda L. Coombs (1849-1919), founder of the first woman’s hospital in China in 1875; Dr. Mary Fulton (1854-1927), who organized and developed a hospital, medical school and nursing school in Canton; Dr. Elizabeth Reifsnyder (1858-1922), who established a hospital in Shanghai, and Dr. Rosetta Sherwood Hall (1865-1951), who founded hospitals for women and children in Pyongyang and Seoul.  Ida B. Scudder (1870-1960), aka “Dr. Ida of India,” studied for three years at Woman’s Medical College, 1895-98.  In Vellore, India, she established a medical school and hospital for Hindu women.

The success of these medical missionaries led logically enough to the desire of women from foreign lands to seek medical training in the United States.  The first was Dr. Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi (1865-87) of Bombay, India, who was graduated by the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886, just seventeen years after Dr. Swain set sail for India.

It was in 1875 when the College had completed the fist 25 years of its existence that a bequest from Isaac Barton, a wealthy Philadelphia dry goods merchant, enabled the institution to erect a building of its own at 21st and North College Avenue.  A companion hospital was later built on the site.

Dr. Joshi held the distinction of being the first Hindu woman to receive a medical degree in any country, and was appointed physician in charge of the woman’s ward of Albert Edward Hospital in Kohlapur, India, in June 1886.  Tragically enough, before entering this post, she died of tuberculosis at age 21.

In August, 1886, Dr. Rachel L. Bodley (1831-88), the dean of the College received a letter from General Sir Henry Ponsonby (forwarded by Henry White, secretary of the legislation) which read: “I am commanded by the Queen (Victoria) to request that you will kindly thank ‘Mr.’ Bodley for having sent Her Majesty the account of Dr. Joshi’s reception in the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and to assure you that the Queen has read the paper with great interest.”

As late as World War I when the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania sent nine women doctors overseas, they were relegated to the posts involved in the alleviating of suffering for civilian population.  It was not until mid-World War II that women doctors took their place in the military services.

Photo dated 1937

Growth and Expansion

For years Woman’s Medical College, along with other progressive medical schools, required only two years of lectures and of study under a physician preceptor to qualify for the degree.

But in 1881 the course at Woman’s Medical was increased to three years and in 1893 it inaugurated, as did the University of Pennsylvania, the requirements for four years.  From the beginning it has been in the forefront of raising the standards of medical education.

Plans for building at 3300 Henry Avenue, date from 1925 when the College, in commemoration of its 75 anniversary, began a movement to raise funds for a new building and endowment.  The new home to WMC was a grand affair designed in the Colonial Revival style by the firm of Ritter and Shay.  The College and hospital activities were transferred to the new building September 15, 1930.

The school was later renamed as The Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP) after opening its doors to men in 1970.  In 1993, the college and hospital merged with Hahnemann Medical School, which is the nation’s first college of homeopathy.  In 2003, the two colleges were absorbed by the Drexel University College of Medicine, which currently has the distinction of having America’s largest enrollments for a private medical school.

From its humble beginnings as a small pioneering school beset by insults from local ruffians and denials of prescriptions from sexist pill peddlers, the Women’s Medical College has grown to become one of America’s largest and most prestigious institutes of medical training.  Until this year, the East Falls Campus at 2900 W. Queen Lane has been primarily used by students during their preclinical training and has an enrollment of over 1,000 medical students. Now it’s being renovated into luxurious new residences, called — what else? — The Preston!

Follow Joe on Facebook for great pics & info.  Meet Joe (and check out his books!) at EFtoberfest at Castle Ringstetten, Saturday October 13, 2018 (more about the historic Castle here). 

Joseph Minardi is a local photographer and author whose most recent book focuses on historic architecture in the East Falls area. His book on Philadelphia Neighborhoods will be out soon. Joe is vice president of the University City Historical Society and editor-in-chief of their bi-monthly newsletter.

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