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.