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.

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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.

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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.

Table Reading

Our October 2014 “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ festival guest curator, artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer, describer her first experience with cadavers and how that shaped her thinking about bodies, anatomy, and art.

"In the Yellow Woods," by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

“In the Yellow Woods,” by Riva Lehrer. Click to enlarge.

The first time I ever saw a cadaver was a day in early September of 2006. The light was perfect—a glowing blue and gold herald of the coming Jewish New Year. I walked into lab behind Dr. Norm Lieska, head of Gross Anatomy at University of Illinois at Chicago, and a group of M1 students, all gangly in their brand-new starched white coats and spotless scrubs. The laboratory was a sort of extended corridor, comprised of a series of interlocking rooms, lit by high, industrial windows like those in an old factory. Burnished shafts of sunlight slanted across the rows of steel tables, skimming across the unzipped body bags. Each contained a cadaver that had been preserved and prepped for student exploration. For the main, though, they were pristine; head and hands demurely wrapped, all original parts on board.

I’d been warned that I might be nauseated or disgusted by the bodies. I braced myself to be sickened by the miasma of chemicals in the air. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by the sheer generosity represented in that room. Twenty-five people had decided that we needed to understand the human body in the most direct and unmediated way. They’d signed donation papers that gave us the right to read the history of their own flesh. I felt the impact of that gift even from my first steps into lab.

The dark vinyl of the body bags appeared as if gilded. This was the last moment they would all appear the same. We would pull down the zippers, and reveal the wild variations within. I am not in any way a religious person, but I thought: if I felt this kind of awe in synagogue, I’d be a very different kind of Jew. I was at the lab as part of my position as visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Each cadaver in Gross Lab was assigned to a team of about 10 students; at the start of the semester I’d been assigned to one such team. These students worked on the same person for the entire year. Scalpels peeled away each archeological layer, skin down to the deepest core. It was a bizarre form of intimate knowledge—both closer and more abstract than their inhabitants had had in life. I began to focus on comparing the bodies from table to table, and to show the members of my team that each cadaver had its idiosyncrasies. None of them were ringers for the photographs in their Color Atlas of Human Anatomy.

"Theresia Degener," by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener  accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies.  Click to enlarge.

“Theresia Degener,” by Riva Lehrer. International Human Rights lawyer Theresia Degener is one of the drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. As a member of the German generation of children whose mothers were given thalidomide, Degener accomplishes all she wants to do through a range of inventive strategies. Click to enlarge.

In all the time I was there, though, I never saw a body anything like mine. I was much too intimidated to ask why. Perhaps a body that was too different from those dissection pictures could not function as a primer? (Oddly enough, when I visited a different cadaver lab last year, a bare scoliotic spine was on a table in the back of the room, picked clean of the body in which it had dwelt).

I was the visiting artist in Medical Humanities at the Medical School of the University of Illinois at Chicago for four years, during which I taught figure drawing and portraiture for med students. I’ve gone on to teach those classes at Northwestern University School of Medicine, and as the professor of anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (I’m on leave now to pursue other projects). Each year of teaching and study has only increased my sense of wonder at what a living body can do. All bodies (human and animal) are so densely woven with function, yet can accommodate such dysfunction.

I’ve asked my students at both medical schools whether I’m the only disabled person they interact with outside of clinical rotations. The answer is yes. I wonder if my professional presence changes what they think when they begin clinicals, though I also wonder if they begin silent diagnoses when I walk into the classroom. My SAIC students do often seem startled on their first day. (Though maybe that’s just an effect of the tables full of bones. Hard to tell with the young and ironic.) They may not have medical knowledge, but they are trained observers, and mine is the body at the center of the room, at least until our model climbs onto the platform in his/her birthday suit.

Riva Lehrer with students at SAIC in 2012.

Riva Lehrer with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

For years, I was the elephant in the room. Eventually, I stopped pretending I wasn’t there and began to use myself as an exemplar. This doesn’t come easy—sometimes, my attempts at coping through humor sound like outtakes from Young Frankenstein—but it does produce a willingness on the part of students to ask uncomfortable questions. As the cadavers prove year after year, normal is a matter of degree. Our bodies let us live so many ways. Healing is creativity made manifest.

I’m writing this just before another New Year. I hope that 2015 brings you joy of your own mysteries, and that you will follow those secret trails through your own glowing, shadowed, and gilded rooms.