Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sarah McNutt, MD

By Miranda Schwartz, Cataloger

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

The interconnected medical interests of New York Academy of Medicine Fellow Dr. Sarah McNutt show deep curiosity, energy, and a dedication to service: “She trained as a pediatrician, gynecologist, and pathologist and developed a special interest in the study of pediatric neurologic disorders.”[1] During her professional life in New York City, she worked closely with prominent women doctors Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi. With Jacobi and others she was key in founding the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital; with her twin sister Julia, also a doctor, she founded the Postgraduate Training School for Nurses and Babies’ Hospital.[2]

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Sarah Jane McNutt (July 22, 1839–September 10, 1930) was the second female Fellow of NYAM (admitted 1888). She was the first woman to be inducted into the American Neurological Association, and cofounded Babies’ Hospital in NYC. Portrait of Sarah J. McNutt, M.D., undated, From the National Library of Medicine.

McNutt was born in Warrensburg, New York, in 1839, to James and Adaline McNutt. She attended Albany Normal School and then continued her education at the Emma Willard Seminary in Troy, New York. She worked as a teacher before attending medical school at Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (founded by the Blackwell sisters). After her graduation in 1877, she did a two-year internship at the Infirmary’s hospital.[3]

In the mid-1880s McNutt saw the city’s clear need for more beds for pediatric patients; at the time New York had only a handful of beds for sick children under the age of 2.[4] With her sister and three other women, McNutt founded Babies’ Hospital at its first location at Lexington Avenue and 45th Street.[5] Babies’ Hospital also ran a “Summer Branch” in Oceanic, NJ, where the children went between June and October to recover away from the city heat and noise.[6] Babies’ Hospital existed as its own entity until 1943, when it became fully part of Presbyterian Hospital; today, its successor institution, Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian, is one of the country’s most highly rated pediatric hospitals.

Babies Hospital NYHS cropped

Babies’ Hospital moved a few times. This Lexington Avenue building designed by York & Sawyer was its home from 1902 to 1929. (From the George P. Hall and Son Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society, undated.)

McNutt also collaborated with Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and others to establish the New York Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital on East 23rd Street, “an institution dedicated to the continuing education of male and female physicians, especially through the sponsorship of weekly lectures on medical topics.”[7] At this institution, “lectures by capable women were as acceptable as those by men”[8]; here, McNutt gave regular weekly lectures on pediatric diseases, one of her own special areas of study.

But it was not only in the lecture hall that McNutt imparted her knowledge: her use of morgue research in pediatric neurology was a key contributor to a fuller understanding of hemiplegia and its causes, as well as other conditions. “The idea of utilizing the material at the morgue for instruction in the pathological conditions of children was original with her, and thus her classes at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School had practical experience on all the operations performed on children, while she found here an excellent opportunity to perfect herself in gynecological surgery and abdominal work.”[9]

In 1884 Dr. R.W. Amidon, who knew McNutt from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, nominated her for admission to the American Neurological Association. She had an excellent reputation as a gynecologist, pathologist, surgeon, and lecturer. The ANA required an original unpublished work for a candidate to be considered for admission and limited the number of active members to just 50.[10] McNutt’s thesis paper for admission, “Double Infantile Spastic Hemiplegia,” was “an important contribution to medical literature in the United States”[11] and she was admitted to the select group. Her 1884 achievement stands out even more in light of the fact that the ANA did not elect another woman member until 1935, with Dr. Lauretta Bender. In 1888, McNutt became NYAM’s second female Fellow.

Sarah McNutt helped establish leading local medical institutions, lectured on pediatric diseases, performed gynecologic surgery, contributed to prestigious professional organizations, and led the way in morgue research. Her desire to serve, her entrepreneurial initiative, and her hands-on approach to research, coupled with her close connections to other prominent female physicians, made her an integral part of the New York medical community.

________

Notes

[1] Stacy S. Horn, DO, and Christopher G. Goetz, MD. The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association, Historical Neurology. 2002; 59: 113–117.

[2] Ibid, 114.

[3] Ibid, 113.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Tom Miller. The 1902 Babies’ Hospital — 135 East 55th Street. http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-1902-babies-hospital-135-east-55th.html. Accessed August 25, 2020.

[6] Robert J. Touloukian. Origins of Pediatric Surgery: Patient, Doctor and Hospital. John Jones Surgical Society. Summer 2007; volume 10 (number 1): 5–6.

[7] Horn and Goetz, 114.

[8] Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England.  Froben Press; 1933: 38.

[9] The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume XV. New York: James T. White & Company; 1916: 264.

[10] Horn and Goetz, 116.

[11] Ibid, 116.

References

Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England.  Froben Press; 1933.

Stacy S. Horn, DO, and Christopher G. Goetz, MD. The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association, Historical Neurology. 2002; 59: 113–117.

The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume XV. New York: James T. White & Company; 1916.

Robert J. Touloukian. Origins of Pediatric Surgery: Patient, Doctor and Hospital. John Jones Surgical Society. Summer 2007; volume 10 (number 1): 5–6.

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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.

1 thought on “Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sarah McNutt, MD

  1. This interesting account of Dr. Sarah McNutt shows a red brick building that her Babies’ Hospital occupied from 1902 to about 1929 and mentions that the architects were York and Sawyer. Readers might be curious to know that the York and Sawyer firm were also responsible for the uptown Flower-Fifth Avenue hospital in white stone and for the New York Academy of Medicine in large gray stone blocks. All three historic buildings survive as pieces of living history, and they can still be seen by visits even if the hospitals now serve other purposes. Information about York and Sawyer, with pictures of the two uptown buildings, may be found in the BOOKS, HEALTH, AND HISTORY installment for May 5, 2017, “The Architecture of Health Care (Part 1), at https://nyamcenterforhistory.org/2017/05/05/the-architecture-of-health-care-part-1/ . For information and modern photos of the Babies’ Hospital, see an installment of DAYTONIAN IN MANHATTAN, “The 1902 Babies’ Hospital, 135 East 55th St.” at http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2016/03/the-1902-babies-hospital-135-east-55th.html. Its surroundings have changed, but the building’s appearance has changed little over 100 years except for commercial modification of the main floor.

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