By Carrie Levinson, Reference Services and Outreach Librarian
The history of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) includes many great figures, including Samuel Smith Purple, a founding Fellow as well as advocate for our Library, author of a large number of medical works, and the ward physician under the Board of Health during the NYC cholera epidemic of 1849 (“Dr. Samuel Smith Purple”, 1900); Valentine Mott, an eminent surgeon who helped to found Rutgers Medical College and was chair of surgery at Columbia College (“Obituary: Death of Dr. Valentine Mott”, 1865); and Abraham Jacobi, a pioneer in pediatrics and President of the Academy from 1885-1889 (Watson, 1896). These doctors all had one thing in common (besides, of course, being physicians): they were all men. Until 1880, there had never been a female NYAM Fellow. The woman who managed to break this glass ceiling? Mary Putnam Jacobi – by one vote (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015).
Mary Putnam was born on August 31, 1842, in London. Her parents, who were both Americans, returned to the States in 1847, and settled in New York City. In 1859, she began studying medicine, first receiving a diploma from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1862 (the first woman to do this) and then graduating with her MD from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864. In 1866, she traveled to Paris to enroll in the École de Médecine – once again, the first woman to be admitted – and graduated from there in 1871 (Watson, 1896).
Just these accomplishments would have been enough to put Putnam in the history books, but she hadn’t even begun to make her mark. Women’s education at the time was often separate from men’s, and she argued that higher education, particularly medical school, should be co-educational, as women’s medical colleges did not have the same resources as those affiliated with large hospitals. Returning to New York, she organized the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women and served as its president for almost 30 years (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015).
In 1876, Jacobi (now married to Abraham Jacobi) published an important essay: “The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation”, which won the Boylston Prize at Harvard University (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015). Why was that so significant?
Jacobi was a stickler for rigor in scientific research. She believed that many other doctors did not live up to these expectations and allowed their biases to color their research. One of these biases was the widespread belief, specifically argued for in Edward H. Clarke’s Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for the Girls, that women who exerted themselves during menstruation could face serious health issues. This belief was used to justify separating women from higher education and certain professions. Relying heavily on statistics and empirical evidence, Jacobi thoroughly debunked this notion (Bittel, 2009).
Jacobi continued her work in fighting for equality for women throughout her lifetime – she wrote in favor of suffrage and taught at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children until 1889, assisting in elevating educational standards (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015).
Jacobi even considered her own life as a means to advance medical research – when diagnosed with a brain tumor, she wrote a paper about it before passing on at the age of 63: “Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself” (U. S. National Library of Medicine, 2015).
NYAM’s collection of Mary Putnam Jacobi’s productions can be found in our catalog.
Bittel, C. (2009). Mary Putnam Jacobi & the politics of medicine in nineteenth-century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Dr. Samuel Smith Purple. (1900, October 1). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com
Obituary: Death of Dr. Valentine Mott. (1865, April 27). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2015, June 3). Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi. Retrieved from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_163.html
Watson, I. A. (Ed.). (1896). Physicians and surgeons of America: A collection of biographical sketches of the regular medical profession. Concord, NH: Republican Press Association.