Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Emily Dunning Barringer, MD

By Paul Theerman, Director

Academy Fellows lead by serving, now during the COVID-19 crisis as in the past. This is the sixth entry in our 2020 series on early women NYAM Fellows and their contributions to society. For earlier posts, see Sara Josephine BakerMartha WollsteinDaisy Maude Orleman RobinsonSarah McNutt, and Elizabeth Martha Cushier. Please also see our biographical sketch of Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.

While Emily Dunning Barringer (1876–1961) shares many things in common with other early women Fellows of the Academy, she can claim one unique distinction: having her life story made into a feature film. The Girl in White—based on Barringer’s 1950 memoir, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York’s First Woman Ambulance Surgeon—debuted in 1952 and starred June Allyson. In the film as in her life, Barringer overcame both institutional barriers and deliberate affronts as she pursued a career as a woman professional in an overwhelmingly male world.

June Allyson portraying Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer in the 1952 film The Girl in White. Promotional photograph from the private collection of NYAM Fellow Patricia Gallagher.

Barringer was born in 1876 to a wealthy family in Scarsdale, New York. Her parents, Edwin James Dunning and Frances Gore Lang, believed that all children, regardless of gender, should be educated and trained to support themselves. The family fell on hard financial times when Barringer was 10, and a well-meaning friend’s suggestion that perhaps the young girl should train as a milliner only served to strengthen Frances Dunning’s resolve for her daughter to receive a college education. With the support of her uncle, Henry Sage, one of the founders of Cornell University, Barringer did so, graduating from Cornell in 1897 before going on to medical school at the College of Medicine of the New York Infirmary, which merged with the new Cornell University School of Medicine during her time as a student.

The NYAM plaque honoring Barringer’s service as an ambulance surgeon in New York City hospitals.

Graduating from medical school in 1901, Barringer applied for a residency at New York City’s Gouverneur Hospital but was rejected despite receiving the second highest score on the qualifying exam. Undeterred, and with the help of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, she reapplied the following year and this time was accepted, becoming the first woman to earn a position as surgical resident. Acceptance into the program, however, did not mean acceptance by other residents or their supervising physicians, and in her autobiography, Barringer recounted that she had been harassed and given the most difficult and unpleasant assignments and schedules. One difficult role, however, she sought herself, that of ambulance physician, and when she was given the position, she achieved a second “first”: the first female ambulance surgeon. Overcoming the skepticism of her male colleagues who felt that a woman would not be able to withstand the physical challenges of the role, she went on to earn not only their respect, but also the respect of city firefighters, police officers, and the patients she treated in Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements.

She fell in love with fellow doctor Ben Barringer during her residency, and they married in 1904 when her residency ended. She immediately experienced frustration because her opportunities for work and further training were so much more constrained than her new husband’s. The pair lived for a short time in Vienna where both attended class, and then returned to New York City. Barringer took a position on the gynecological staff at New York Polyclinic Hospital and worked as an attending surgeon at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, where she specialized in the study of venereal diseases.

Poster for the 1952 MGM film The Girl in White. From the private collection of NYAM Fellow Patricia Gallagher.

During World War I Barringer served as vice chair of the American Women’s Hospitals War Service Committee of the National Medical Women’s Association (later the American Medical Women’s Association). In that role, she spearheaded a campaign to raise money for the purchase of ambulances to be sent to Europe. When the war ended, she became an attending surgeon at Brooklyn’s Kingston Avenue Hospital and subsequently its director of gynecology. She was a member of the American Medical Association and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and The New York Academy of Medicine. In 1941 Barringer was elected president of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA).

Over the course of her long medical career, Barringer advocated for legislation that would control the spread of venereal disease and authored numerous articles on gynecology. As Chair of the Special Committee of the American Medical Women’s Association, Barringer was decorated by the King of Serbia for championing the service of female physicians during World War I. As co-chair of the War Service Committee, she helped to organize the American Women’s Hospital in Europe, which provided medical and surgical care during the war and postwar reconstruction. During World War II, Barringer successfully lobbied Congress to allow women physicians (who had been allowed to work only as contract physicians and were consequently denied the benefits earned by their male counterparts) to serve as commissioned officers in the medical corps of the Army and Navy.

After World War II, Emily Barringer and her husband retired to Connecticut. She died there in 1961.

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References

Changing the Face of Medicine: Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer; National Library of Medicine. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_23.html. Accessed November 10, 2020.

Women Physicians in WWII: Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer; American Medical Women’s Association. https://www.amwa-doc.org/wwibios/dr-emily-dunning-barringer/. Accessed November 10, 2020.

Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer; Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. https://www.cwhf.org/inductees/emily-barringer. Accessed November 10, 2020.

Women in Medicine: Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer; Mental Floss. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/63610/women-medicine-dr-emily-dunning-barringer. Accessed November 10, 2020.

Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Elizabeth Martha Cushier, MD

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

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

When Elizabeth Cushier (1837–1931) was elected a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1889, she was only the third woman to be invited into the Academy, joining two of her colleagues from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Sarah McNutt.

Cushier was born in Jamaica, New York, on November 25, 1837, a daughter of John Henry and Martha Lumley Cushier. She was the sixth of eleven children, but three of her older siblings had died before she was born; five other younger siblings followed. In her autobiography, published as an appendix to Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead’s Medical Women of America, Cushier said this about her childhood: “We were brought up in the strictest economy, as my father’s income was a very limited one, but we were, as I remember, a happy, healthy lot, quite enterprising and consequently often trying.”[i] When she was sixteen, the family moved to Little Falls, New Jersey. Cushier quickly became friendly with the Hinton family, who had also relocated from New York, and forged a life-long friendship with Ione Hinton. The family’s wide-ranging intellectual interests, along with their support of abolitionism and women’s suffrage, resonated with her and encouraged her independent spirit.

After her mother died in 1859, Cushier took on much of the household responsibility, caring for her father and her four living younger siblings. His remarriage a year later freed her to go to New York, where she got a position singing with a church choir and gave private voice lessons. In the summer of 1868, she happened to read a medical article that sparked her interest, and she enrolled in the homeopathic New York Medical College for Women before transferring a year later to Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell’s Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, graduating in 1872.

Cushier’s 1872 graduation noted in the Annual Announcement of the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, noting her thesis topic as “Endometritis.” Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (N.Y.). Annual catalogue and announcement. New York: S. Angell, 1871.

Cushier stayed on at the Infirmary, beginning as an intern before becoming a resident physician. Her practice was devoted to obstetrics and gynecology, but an interest in normal and pathological histology led to eighteen months of study in Zurich with a Professor Ebert, who offered her laboratory opportunities that were not yet available to women in the United States. Laboratory research, pathological and post-mortem study, lectures, and bedside clinics all enriched her knowledge before she returned to New York.

The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary on Stuvvesant Square. Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (N.Y.). Annual catalogue and announcement. New York: M.J. Rooney, 1891.

On her return, Cushier went right back to the Infirmary, and worked to expand the practice of gynecological surgery there. Thomas Addis Emmet and T. Gaillard Thomas, who were on the staff at the Woman’s Hospital (and both of whom were NYAM Fellows), allowed her to attend clinics there, and the Infirmary, in its larger home on Stuyvesant Square, eventually added a modern operating room for both gynecological and abdominal surgeries. As her work at the Infirmary and her private practice continued to grow, she published articles and case studies, mainly about gynecological and obstetrical subjects.[ii]

In 1882, Cushier’s personal life changed significantly when she and Emily Blackwell (1826–1910) began to live together in Blackwell’s home on East 20th Street. Cushier and Blackwell also bought a summer home, Seawold, near York Cliffs, Maine, in 1893. After the Woman’s Medical College closed its doors in 1899, both women retired from practice and headed to Europe, where they spent eighteen months. On their return, they gave up their city home, moving to Montclair, New Jersey, where Cushier’s niece, Dr. Emily Mercelis, also lived. When Blackwell died in September 1910, just a few months after her older sister Elizabeth (1821–1910) died in England, Cushier called the moment “an irreparable break in my life.”[iii]

Elizabeth Cushier and Emily Blackwell’s home in Montclair, NJ. Photograph by Elisa Rolle, originally published in her Queer Places: Retracing the Steps of LGBTQ People around the World. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

Cushier lived for another 20 years, going to Maine in the summers and living in Montclair for the rest of the year. No longer engaged in the practice of medicine, she felt her days were not useful, until the First World War brought the opportunity to do relief work for French and Belgian women and children and for servicemen through the Red Cross. She died on November 25, 1931, her 94th birthday, and is buried, alongside her parents, in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Notes

[i] 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: 85.

[ii] A full list of Cushier’s publications can be found in Creese, Mary RS. Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900: a survey of their contributions to research. Scarecrow Press, 2000: 392.

[iii] Hurd-Mead. Medical Women of America, 92.

Beard Dipping: New York Medicine 1900 Style

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

After episode one of The Knick, the question on everyone’s lips is of course: what was going on with the beard dipping? A commitment to getting the historical details right is the answer (although we hope for the actor’s sake the liquid wasn’t completely true to life).

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Courtsey of HBO-Cinemax.

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Credit: HBO-Cinemax.

The surgeons performing the emergency Caesarean early in the episode ran an operating theater following Listerian principles of cleanliness and antiseptic surgery. Joseph Lister (1827–1912) was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who, influenced by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, looked for methods to remove microorganisms from the environment during surgery. The introduction of chloroform and ether as anesthetic agents in the mid-19th century meant that surgery had become a much less painful process for patients (and allowed surgeons to focus on longer and more complex procedures). However, surgery remained dangerous, with postoperative infection continuing to be a serious, often fatal, problem.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-18. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-1870. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

In 1867, Lister published an article in which he proposed using carbolic acid (already used to treat sewage) to sterilize the operating room, surgical instruments, bandages, and wounds. Surgeons were encouraged to dip their hands—and yes, their beards!—into carbolic acid before operating.

Working in the midst of a pungent yellow spray that smelled like tar was not ideal and inhaling too much carbolic acid could be dangerous. Lister continued experimenting throughout his career with new sterilization techniques. However he never embraced the idea of gowns, face masks, or gloves.

The use of gloves in surgery was introduced by William Stewart Halsted (on whom Clive Owen’s character Dr. Thackery is based) in the 1890s. A pioneer of antiseptic surgery, one of his surgical nurses (whom he later married) had a bad reaction to the mercuric chloride used as a disinfectant, so he commissioned Goodyear rubber to make her some gloves. The early use of gloves in surgery was not about patient safety, but protecting the medical team. Like any new innovation, reactions were mixed. Some individuals embraced the idea of gloves, while others continued to operate bare-knuckled.

We’re looking forward to the next episode. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about what’s going on in the hospital and we will get back to you in a future post.