Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Daisy Maude Orleman Robinson, MS, MD

by Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

Academy Fellows lead by serving, now during the COVID-19 crisis as in the past. This the third entry in our series on early women NYAM Fellows and their contributions to society; for earlier posts, see Sara Josephine Baker, and Martha Wollstein. Please also see our biographical sketch of Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.

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A portrait of Daisy Orleman in her youth (date unknown). Photograph courtesy Paul Austin Orleman.

Widely lauded as the first female dermatologist in the United States and one of the first women to become a NYAM Fellow, Daisy Maude Orleman Robinson (1868–1942) had an illustrious career in patient care, public health, and health scholarship that spanned decades. Among her long list of achievements is being the first woman to publish scholarly work in the field of dermatology.[1] The work, an 1899 case report entitled “The Ill Effects of the Roentgen Rays as Demonstrated in a Case Herewith Reported,” was one of the first scholarly works to examine the harmful effects of X-rays, which at that time were being widely used as treatments for a variety of ailments.[2] The work is important in its own right, but is particularly interesting because the patient whose experience formed the case study was none other than Orleman herself.[3]

Orleman began her medical education at age 19 at the National Medical College of Columbian University in Washington, D.C. She was the only woman in her medical school class.[4] After her graduation in 1890, she spent several years continuing her education, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, as well as engaging in coursework on a wide range of specialties. In 1896 she obtained a medical license in the state of New York, and she was elected a NYAM Fellow in May 1897.[5]

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Orleman in her room at Peekskill Military Academy, where she was the resident physician from 1899 to 1903. Photograph courtesy Paul Austin Orleman.

That same year, Orleman suffered a fracture in her femur. Between January and May of 1898, she received three X-ray treatments intended to heal the fracture. She noted the first two as being “unsuccessful” but having no ill effects, and reported a “slight tingling sensation” upon her final treatment on May 14, 1898, with a similar lack of success.[6] Twenty-one days later, she noticed a small patch of inflamed and itchy skin where she had received the treatments. With each passing day, the inflamed area increased in size and became more and more uncomfortable. Eventually, the inflamed area became an ulcer, and over the course of several months continued to worsen. Only after ten months did the “severe injury” finally heal with the help of several doctors, various ointments, tinctures, and washes to heal the wound, and, eventually, a skin graft on the affected area.[7] She determined that, aside from the relief of pain (for which she occasionally used opium and morphine), “[maintaining] the limb in a perfect state of rest” was essential to her recovery.[8] She admitted to forgoing her doctors’ advice to rest early on in her treatment, noting that “[had she] given this precedence in the beginning … [she] might have had a more speedy recovery.”[9] Irritated by her ordeal, Orleman kept meticulous records of her symptoms and treatments, as well as the advice and theories of her medical providers. She published her case study—of herself—in 1899. In it, she lamented the lack of knowledge among physicians of the harmful effects of X-ray treatments and shared her experience in the hopes of both improving medical response to future cases and preventing them from developing in the first place.[10]

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Orleman’s paper in The Medical Record provides an overview of her injury and treatment.

Orleman’s painful experience with what would come to be known as radiation dermatitis likely sparked her interest in dermatology. In addition to pioneering female dermatological scholarship and providing us with an excellent example of a physician’s understanding of her own experience with injury and illness, “The Ill Effects of the Roentgen Rays” was, in fact, Orleman’s first scholarly publication.[11]

Orleman continued to innovate in the field of dermatology throughout the rest of her career. From 1908 until 1910, she worked with Hideyo Noguchi on developing more accurate diagnostic tests for syphilis. Her publication on what came to be known as the “Noguchi reaction test” earned her the Gold Palms from the French Academy of Science in 1910. During World War I, she joined the French Army’s medical corps and was decorated for her work there, becoming the first woman and the first American to receive a Gold Medal of Epidemics and Contagious Diseases from the French minister of war.[12] After the war, she turned her attention to public health and sex education, becoming an officer in the United States Public Health Service and focusing her work on the eradication of sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis. She was also invested in educating women’s groups, becoming one of the founding members of the Medical Women’s International Association in 1919.[13]

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Orleman wearing the Gold Medal of Epidemics and Contagious Diseases, awarded to her by the French minister of war at the end of World War I. Photograph courtesy Paul Austin Orleman.

Daisy Maude Orleman Robinson had a long, wide-ranging, and influential career, but her interest in using her own experience as a patient to inform her medical writing and practice makes her particularly extraordinary. With “The Ill Effects of the Roentgen Rays,” she used a fractured femur to cement her place in the history of her field.

__________
[1] David M. Pariser, “Daisy Maude Orleman Robinson: The first American woman dermatologist,” Clinics in Dermatology 33 (2015), 404.
[2] Daisy Maude Orleman, “The Ill Effects of the Roentgen Rays as Demonstrated in a Case Herewith Reported,” The Medical Record (1899), 8–10.
[3] Pariser, 399–400. As she did this work prior to her 1904 marriage to Andrew Rose Robinson, we refer to her as “Orleman.”
[4] Ibid., 397, 404.
[5] Ibid., 399; Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 18/6 (June 1942), 430.
[6] Orleman, 8.
[7] Ibid., 10.
[8] Ibid., 10.
[9] Ibid., 8, 10.
[10] Ibid., 8.
[11] Pariser, 399.
[12] Ibid., 402.
[13] Ibid., 403.

This entry was posted in Academy history, History of medicine, History of public health and tagged , by nyamhistory. Bookmark the permalink.

About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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