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.

War and Veterans Health: Some History for the 70th Anniversary of D-Day

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

June is Men’s Health Month. As a concept, men’s health—a focus on the health and wellness issues particular to men—is still new, first arising in the men’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The emergence of AIDS sharpened the idea of men’s health, as gay men took the brutal first hits of the pandemic. By the 1990s, though, the idea of men’s health had become more mainstream. Congress first designated an official men’s health week in 1994, sponsored by Senator Robert Dole. By the early 2000s, the CDC began to include men’s health as a separate category in its consumer health site. In 2014, NYU’s Langone Medical Center opened the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Men’s Health, the counterpart to its Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health of 2011.

The original men’s health movement, though, focused on war veterans. Each war brings up the issue—for Vietnam, for example, it emerged in such popular books as Peter Bourne’s Men, Stress, and Vietnam (1970; by the physician who became President Jimmy Carter’s drug czar). An escalating cycle of concern, growth, failure, and reform—so apparent in today’s veterans health scandal—has deep roots in American military history.

The federal government first extended general health and medical benefits to veterans in 1917 due to the large number of Great War veterans.1 In 1921, this led to a separate agency, the Veterans Bureau—which, joined with two other agencies, became the Veterans Administration in 1930. The VA ran a separate hospital system, with 74 facilities by the end of 1932.1

Photograph in: Armfield BB. Organization and Administration in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1963.

Photograph in: Armfield BB. Organization and Administration in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1963.

World War II led to a new crisis in veterans health. In 1945, the number of living veterans from all previous wars numbered some 4 million men; World War II immediately added 15 million more.2 This surge threatened to overwhelm the system, and led to major reform of veterans health care, undertaken by Major General Paul R. Hawley.

In World War II, Hawley (1891–1966) served as the theater surgeon for the European Theater of Operations. As such he was responsible for all medical care for American armed forces fighting in Europe, with 250,000 medical men under his command. Among other accomplishments, he planned the medical support for D-Day, June 6, 1944, arranging for the construction of field hospitals (with some 11,000 beds) in Normandy right after the invasion. These hospitals began as concrete slabs to hold tents, as there were almost no existing hospitals in the landing area. He called this work “one of the finest pieces of planning in the entire campaign.”3,4

Photograph in: Wiltse C. Medical supply in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1968.

Photograph in: Wiltse C. Medical supply in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1968.

Indeed, planning was Hawley’s strength. In 1945, the new head of the Veterans Administration was General Omar Bradley, who had commanded American invasion forces in Europe from D-day through to German surrender. Bradley brought in Hawley to reorganize the health services. To this task, Hawley brought a keen sense of what was possible and a reliance on improving health by raising the quality of the system’s doctors. The Veterans Administration began by engaging in hospital building—by the late 1940s, the number of VA hospitals has risen to almost 100—but as a first measure, Hawley advocated using private clinics to help veterans, and he looked to county medical societies to provide the services. His vision was to have “every physician in each community designated a veteran’s physician.”5 For, ultimately, he saw the nation’s physicians and surgeons as the backbone of the system. He had great confidence in physicians’ abilities; indeed, more than any other factor, he gave well-trained doctors the chief credit for the greatly reduced casualty rates in World War II.3

Armfield BB. Organization and Administration in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1963.

Photograph in: Armfield BB. Organization and Administration in World War II. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General. Department of the Army; 1963.

And so, after revitalizing local clinics, Hawley’s chief reform was getting good doctors into veterans hospitals. He loosened the employment structure, removing it from civil service system, and increased the top salaries to about $125,000 in today’s dollars. For board-certified specialties, there was a 25% premium above that—all free of office and support expenses, as he pointed out. He allied VA hospitals with medical schools as much as possible, allowing VA physicians to teach, and he provided for expansive professional development programs. He went out of his way to secure the best physicians—his February 1946 JAMA article on the Veterans Administration2 is really an extended recruitment notice. By the time he left the position in 1947—he went on to head Blue Cross/Blue Shield and then the American College of Surgeons—Hawley had substantially raised the level of care in veterans’ health.

The Veterans Health Administration has gone through successive periods of reform since the late 1940s. The last major period was in the 1990s under Kenneth Kizer, and included implementing one of first effective electronic medical records systems, VistA. By the 2010s, though, the Administration was again overwhelmed, overseeing care for war veterans going back to World War II as well as from recent U.S. wars and incursions—and now serving both men and women. Many of the same issues are there as Hawley faced: the challenge of providing increasing numbers of veterans with the care they need. New, and newly recognized, medical conditions have stressed the system as well. One is PTSD, a consequence in previous wars but not well understood; another are the injuries from IEDs. Neither was a major factor when Hawley reformed the Veterans Health Administration, and now both are huge. We await the next cycle of reform.

References

1. Weber GA, Schmeckebier LF. The Veterans’ Administration: Its History, Activities and Organization. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution; 1934.

2.Hawley PR. New opportunities for physicians in the Veterans Administration. J Am Med Assoc. 1946;130:403.

3.Hawley PR. Advances in war medicine and surgery as demonstrated in the European theater of operations. Med Ann Dist Columbia. 1946;15:99–109.

4. Hall DE. “We were ready”: Health services support in the Normandy campaign. US Army Med Dep Off Med Hist. 1993. Available at: http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/Overlord/Normandy/HallNormandy.html. Accessed June 5, 2014.

5. Hawley PR. Medical care for veterans. Ill Med J. 1945;88:294–96.