History of Women at HMS

Matriculation of Women at Harvard Medical School

A History of Conflict and Debate

The 50th anniversary of the matriculation of women at Harvard Medical School was in 1995. The anniversary was celebrated with commemorative events and a campaign to raise funds to increase the diversity of the faculty at all levels.

At the inaugural dinner on March 17, 1995, President Neil Rudenstine stated that "unlike most birthdays or anniversaries, we look back on this one and wonder, 'why aren't we older.'"

Indeed, it took 100 years for the Corporation and Faculty to reach consensus on the admission of women. This timeline is largely devoted to women's history at the medical school, including the first students, as well as the first researchers, scientists and staff. Pertinent events in world history have been included to give context.

We celebrate the women and men whose persistence and determination led Harvard Medical School to offer "its advantage...to women on equal terms with men."

Click on one of the tabs below to find out more about a particular timeframe.

The information used in this history was gathered by the Timeline Committee In Celebration of Women in Medicine at Harvard Medical School: Laura Brown, Mary Clark, Margaret Dale, Nancy Meyer, Madeleine Mullin, Terri Rutter, Jocelyn Spragg, Eleanor Shore, Miles Shore, Elin Wolfe, Richard Wolfe.

1847 
First recorded mention of women requesting admission to Harvard Medical School appears in the June 12 Medical Faculty Records: "a verbal communication was made in which it was asked if a woman might be admitted to the medical lectures and to an examination for the degree." A special meeting of the President and Fellows of Harvard College on August 14 concludes that "the corporation do not deem it advisable to alter the existing regulations of the Medical School, which imply that the students are exclusively of the male sex." The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

1847
Harriot Kezia Hunt writes to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes on December 12 asking permission to attend "medical lectures at the Massachusetts Medical College." Despite having practiced in Boston since 1835 as a female physician she expressed doubts that she would succeed in being admitted. In her 1856 autobiography Hunt states, "I knew it required more magnanimity, more freedom, more generosity, and a deeper sense of justice, than I supposed existed at Harvard, to acknowledge by such a step, that mind was not sexual." The corporation's reply was to the point. At a December 12 meeting of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, "It was voted, that it is inexpedient to reconsider the vote of the corporation, of the 14th of August, relative to a similar request."

"The facts are on record - when civilization is further advanced, and the great doctrine of human rights is acknowledged, this act will be recalled, and wondering eyes will stare, and wondering ears will be opened, at the semi-barbarism of the middle of the nineteenth century." - Harriot Kezia Hunt, MD

1847
Elizabeth Blackwell is the first woman to enroll in a U.S. medical school. She enters the Geneva (NY) Medical College and graduates in 1850.

1848
Samuel Gregory opens the Boston Female Medical College (later known as the New England Female Medical College), the first medical school for women in the world. Twelve women enroll in the first class and graduate in 1850.

1848
The First National Women's Rights Convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York.

1850
The expanding feminist crusade, and Elizabeth Blackwell's recent graduation may have encouraged Harriot Hunt to again apply to Harvard. On November 23, the medical faculty votes five to two that she be admitted to the lectures "provided that her admission be not deemed inconsistent with the statutes." The corporation's vote is also affirmative, stating they "perceive no objection arising from the Statues of the Medical School to admitting female students to their lectures, expressing hereby no opinion as to the claims of such students to a Medical degree." Before she can attend her first lecture, the medical students meet to protest her admission and that of three Black students. The school retreats in the face of the student protests and the "leading members of the faculty" meet privately with Hunt and persuade her not to attend the lectures.

1861
American Civil War. 1862: Marie Zakrzewska, MD founds the New England Hospital for Women and Children.

1866
Lucy E. Sewall, MD, and Anita E. Tyng, MD, of the New England Hospital Staff apply for admission to Harvard. Sewall had graduated from New England Female Medical College and Tyng was a graduate of Philadelphia's Women's Medical College. They are politely informed by Dean Shattuck that no provision has been made or exists for the education of women in any department of the University.

1867-68
Susan Dimmock and Sophia Jex-Blake, students at New England Hospital, request admission to Harvard. Their application is turned down by a vote of seven to one of a Committee of the Faculty. They persist and reapply in 1868. Jex-Blake even manages to get three women medical students to join her in attending the lectures of Dr. Hasket Derby at the medical school. The medical staff responds by informing the President that, "this faculty do not approve the admission of any female to the lectures of any professor".

1868
Elizabeth Blackwell founds Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary.

 

1872
The New England Female Medical College asks if Harvard would adopt the medical college. Harvard refuses the offer. In 1874 the New England Female Medical College is taken under the auspices of Boston University.

1873
Former Harvard Medical School professor and member of the Harvard board of overseers Dr. E.H. Clarke publishes Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls. The vastly popular book talks about possible end results of female education:
"monstrous brains and puny bodies; abnormally active cerebration and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thought and constipated bowels." E.H. Clarke, MD

1876
Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi refutes Clarke in a study entitled "The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation," which she submits anonymously to the Harvard Medical School Boylston essay contest. Her prize-winning monographs are not published by Harvard, but fortunately Jacobi belongs to the Putnam publishing family, which sees that the book gets into print.

1878
Marian Hovey offers $10,000 to Harvard Medical School "if its advantage can be offered to women on equal terms with men." A prolonged debate among faculty and board ensues. The faculty votes eleven to seven in favor of admitting women "provided a sufficient sum of money can be obtained." $200,000 is suggested as a "proper sum to warrant the Corporation in accepting such a proposal." Women are not admitted. However, President Eliot has shown himself as a supporter of co-education.

1880-82
Lacking half of the $200,000 necessary for its new building, President Eliot writes to Dr. James Chadwick, "this is just the time to offer a round sum of money to the university in order to procure the admission of women to the medical school." Moving quickly, the New England Hospital Society raises $50,000 in pledges within the year. A letter signed by Marie Zakrzewska, Emily Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi, urges that the money be held in trust until the income of the fund is large enough to cover whatever additional costs might be incurred in the medical education of women. The board of overseers votes to accept the offer, but are forced to reevaluate their decision by threats of mass resignation and sabotage by outraged faculty. In a thirteen to twelve decision the overseers vote that:

"it is not advisable for the University now to give any assurance, or hold out any encouragement that it would undertake the medical education of women by Harvard College at its Medical School."

1890
Edith Varney seeks admission with the aid of Dr. Henry Bowditch. She receives a regretful reply from Harvard University President Eliot "that there is as yet no provision for the medical education of women either in Harvard University or by the Society for Promoting the Collegiate Education of Women." She graduates from Boston University School of Medicine and practices for fifty years.

1892
Johns Hopkins Medical school opens as a co-ed institution. 1893: Women's Medical Journal is started by women physicians from Toledo, Ohio.

1896
Ida Henrietta Hyde, Ph.D., in all probability the first woman to engage in scientific investigation at HMS, in the Department of Physiology.

1902
Radcliffe grants its own doctorate degree, after Harvard refuses for several years to grant women a Harvard Ph.D. 1905: Eight women physicians, all members of the Massachusetts Medical Society and affiliated in some way with New England Hospital, petition the corporation for the admission of women. They are refused.

1908
Ida S. Underhill becomes the first woman librarian at the Harvard Medical School library.

1908
The Division of the Medical Sciences is constituted within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The Medical Sciences will be added to the lists of subjects in which the degree of SD and Ph.D. are given. 1915: American Medical Women's Association is founded.

1915
AMA receives Dr. Sarah Stevenson of Iowa as first woman delegate.

1917
US enters World War I. War ends in 1918.

1917
In an attempt to contribute to the war effort and in response to a dip in qualified male applicants, Harvard votes that, as a war measure, in accordance with the plan outlined by President Lowell, the School arrange immediately to provide medical instruction for women. Radcliffe would offer the MD. A number of male students react with a petition stating...

"whenever a woman proved herself capable of intellectual achievement, the area in question ceased to constitute an honor to the men who had previously prized it."

With only a few weeks between Harvard's announcement and the beginning of the fall semester, twenty women apply; sixteen do not have the college training required of men; three were accepted to other schools and, though they may have preferred Harvard, they are not given the choice; that leaves only one who could enter. Consequently, the administration announces it is abandoning the plan to admit women due to insufficient numbers. The plan is abandoned; however, it allows for women pursuing graduate degrees at Radcliffe to attend some classes at HMS.

1919
Dr. Alice Hamilton is appointed assistant professor of industrial medicine at the Harvard Medical School (later, industrial medicine became a part of the newly separated Harvard School of Public Health). Her appointment comes with three limitations: she is not allowed into the Faculty Club, she is not to participate in the academic processions at commencement, and she is not eligible for faculty tickets to the football games. (In 1995, the US Postal Service dedicated a postage stamp in honor of Alice Hamilton. The Hamilton stamp is a 55¢ stamp.)

1920
Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ratified women's suffrage.

 

1923
Louisa Cabot Richardson (Edsall) becomes secretary to John Edsall, MD, Dean of the Medical School.

1923
Annie Stone Minot, the first woman to enter the Division of Medical Sciences, is awarded the Ph.D. in Physiology.

1928
Discovery of penicillin.

1928
Olive Watkins Smith, receives Ph.D. from DMS in Biological Chemistry. In 1947, she is appointed Director of the Fearing Research Laboratories at the Free Hospital for Women.

1929
Wall Street Crash precipitates the great depression.

1935
Frederick and Irene Joliet-Curie win Nobel Prize in chemistry for the creation of artificially radioactive elements.

1936
Mrs. K.B. Wilson is Harvard Medical Alumni Association Executive Secretary, 1936-1950. Assistant Editor, Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin, 1950-53.

1940
Dorothea M. Moore, first instructor in Pediatrics. (She died in 1995 at the age of 102.)

1941
US enters WWII, war ends in 1945.

1942
Priscilla Morris Hubbard, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Medicine for Financial Affairs. (1942-77)

1942
Dr. Joseph C. Aub writes to Dean Sidney Burwell urging the School and War Committee to consider admitting women to HMS:

"Some time ago I suggested to you and to the War Committee that it would be wise to admit women to the Harvard Medical School in this emergency. We discussed this at the War Committee meeting and I bring it to your attention again for one reason. If this proves to be a long war we will have increasing need for such graduates."

1943, January 8
A special meeting of the Faculty of Medicine is held. After discussion and a show of hands, it "appeared there were very definitely more favoring the possible admission of women than those who considered the move unwise." It is voted that a committee be appointed by the Dean to report on the admission of women to HMS. Committee members are Doctors Oliver Cope, Chester Jones, Charles Lund, Robert Morison and S. Burt Wolbach. Dr. Wolbach gives insight into how volatile these discussions are likely to be when, in several fact-finding letters, he introduces himself as "the unfortunate chairman of the committee appointed to consider the advisability of admitting women to the Harvard Medical School."

1943, March 17
A letter from John T. Williams, Assistant Professor of Gynecology, HMS, to Dean Burwell, states one argument against admission

"While I am willing to agree that there are some very able women in medicine, the pro-feminists are apt to overlook the fundamental biological law that the primary function of woman is to bear and raise children, and the first social duty of woman is to develop and perpetuate the home." John T. Williams, MD

1943, April 2
After "scenes of disorder and confusion at the Faculty meetings," the faculty votes 68 to 12 to recommend to the governing bodies of the University that women be admitted to HMS, not only as an immediate, but also as a permanent policy, and that the proportion of women to men admitted should be settled by the Committee on Admissions solely on the basis of the quality of the applicants.

1943, June 21
At a meeting of the Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College in Cambridge, it is voted "That this board is unwilling at the present time to make the proposed change in regard to the admissibility of women to the Medical School.

"It is very difficult to give clear reasons for the policy of excluding women from the medical degree. There have been several discussions recently on the point and it appears that the present arrangements are not so much the result of the decision to exclude as it is a failure to discover crucial reasons for changing from what is, after all, a very old policy." - 1944 letter from Robert Morison, MD

1944, April 18
The increasing applicant shortage causes the Administrative Board to vote to request the faculty and corporation to reconsider the admission of women.

1944, May 22
The faculty reaffirms the decision to admit women by a vote of 56-3.

1944, June 5
The governing board of Harvard approves the policy of admission to Harvard Medical School. "The acceptance to be decided by the Committee on Admission solely on the basis of the quality of the applicants."

1945, September
Women enter Harvard Medical School for the first time on an equal basis with men. HMS class of 1949 includes Dora Benedict, Martha Kern Caires, Raquel Eidelman, Shirley Gallup, Marcia Gordon, Marjorie Kirk, Doris Rubin, Edith Stone, Edith Schwartz, Jo Ann Tanner, Ladislas Wojcik.

1947
Marian Wilkins Ropes, first female assistant professor appointed in a clinical department (medicine); appointed instructor in medicine, (1943).

 

1949
First female graduates from HMS: Doris Rubin Bennett, Martha Kern Caires, Raquel Eidelman Cohen, Shirley Gallup, Dora Benedict Goldstein, Marcia Gordon, Marjorie Kirk, Clare Kent Marshall, Edith Stone, Edith Schwartz Taylor, Jo Ann Tanner Taylor, Ladislas Wojcik.

1951
Helen Deane, first female assistant professor in a basic sciences department (anatomy); first female instructor in basic sciences, (1945).

1952
Aina Meirovics Auskaps first women to enter Harvard School of Dental Medicine.

1952
Contraceptive pill is developed.

1954
First Alumni Bulletin article written by a woman, "Women at Harvard Medical School," by June Pryor, '55, in which she states,

"There were certainly many minor adjustments that had to be made on our part. One of the first was learning that we were now 'scholars and gentlemen' and that we, too, were to step lively to the call, 'Gentlemen!'"

1956
Dorothy Murphy becomes official registrar of Harvard Medical School. Miss Murphy began her career at the medical school in 1919 earning $15 a week. From then through her retirement in 1971, she was secretary for four deans, unofficial registrar, official registrar and finally Associate Director of Harvard Medical Alumni Association. Upon her death, alumni established a scholarship in her name.

1958
Women admitted to Vanderbilt residence hall. They occupy the deanery, which is separated from the rest of the dormitory. Women continue to be sequestered in the deanery until their numbers increase so much after 1972 that they began occupying rooms elsewhere throughout the dormitory.

1958
Harriet Hardy, first female appointed associate clinical professor.

1959
Barbara Ford (Ebert), executive secretary to two deans, in 1978 was made Special Assistant to the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, a position she held until 1984 when she joined the Governing Board.

1961
Grete Bibring, MD, first woman appointed to a full professorship at Harvard Medical School, as clinical professor of psychiatry, and first woman appointed head of a clinical department (1946). (In 1995, the second floor conference room of HMS Building A, 25 Shattuck Street, Boston, MA, was named "The Grete M. Bibring Room," in honor of Dr. Bibring.)

1962
Escalation of US military engagement in Vietnam.

1963
Ph.D. women students first allowed to register as Harvard (not Radcliffe) students and to receive Harvard degrees.

1964
Congress passes Civil Rights Act.

1969
Elizabeth D. Hay, MD, first woman full professor in an HMS preclinical department (anatomy); first woman appointed associate professor with tenure (1964); first woman appointed head of a preclinical department (1975).

1970
Beverly Bennett, first woman to be Assistant Dean (of resources).

 

1972
Mary Howell, MD, first woman to be appointed Associate Dean (of students).

1973
Supreme Court decides Roe v. Wade, constitutionally guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion.

1974
The Joint Committee on the Status of Women is established as a standing committee including HMS, HSDM, HSPH.

1977
Ruth Sager, Ph.D., professor of cellular genetics, first HMS woman faculty member in the National Academy of Sciences.

1978
Carola Eisenberg, MD, first woman to be appointed Dean (of students).

1979
Beatrix Hamburg, first HMS woman faculty member to hold membership in the Institute of Medicine (HMS Associate Professor 1980-83).

1981
The Smith and Smith Laboratory of Reproductive Endocrinology named for Olive Watkins Smith (Ph.D. 1928) and her husband, George Smith.

1982
Jane Schaller, MD, (HMS '60) first woman president of HMS Alumni Association.

1983
Barbara McNeil, MD, Ph.D., first woman HMS graduate (1966) and first woman DMS graduate (1972) to be appointed full professor at HMS.

1985
Marjorie Lees, first Harvard DMS Ph.D. (1951) woman made full professor at Harvard (of Biochemistry in the Department of Neurology).

1991
Mary Ellen Avery, MD, Thomas Morgan Rotch Professor of Pediatrics, awarded the National Medal of Science.

1991
Bernadine Healy, MD (HMS '69), first woman director of the National Institutes of Health, launches the Women's Health Initiative.

1994, September
Women comprise 52.7% of the entering class of students.