‘There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity’ – Controversies at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania

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Dec 052019

This blog post was originally posted on In Her Own Right: A Century of Women’s Activism, 1820-1920, a Pennsylvania Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) collaborative digitization and aggregation project showcasing Philadelphia-area collections highlighting women’s struggle to assert their rights throughout the century prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment.


From 1867-1972, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) compiled newspaper clippings scrapbooks, which covered topics relevant to the College, its Hospital (established in 1904), and women in medicine. The Drexel College of Medicine Legacy Center holds 27 of these scrapbook volumes; the first 8 volumes (1867-1920) were digitized as part of a Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) for the In Her Own Right project. These scrapbooks uniquely capture the conflicting opinions on women in the medical profession. 

During the 19th century, when rapid social change and experimentation swept through American society, WMCP (initially Female Medical College of Pennsylvania) opened in 1850 as the first degree-granting medical school for women in the world (yes, that’s right, the world!). Because of this “first,” WMCP often attracted national attention. 

Two scrapbook volumes available on the In Her Own Right website contain clippings focused on two infamous Philadelphia events, events that brought national attention to WMCP and forced the public to consider women’s “place” in medicine yet again. 

The first event occurred on November 6, 1869, when a group of 20-30 female WMCP students went to the Pennsylvania Hospital amphitheater to attend a clinical lecture, joining several hundred male medical students. Their attendance drew a strong response from the male students, including yells, cat-calls, epithets, mock applause, throwing of paper and tin foil, and even spitting tobacco onto the female students’ dresses. This event came to be known among students, faculty, and alumnae of WMCP as “The Jeering Episode.”

“…The students of the male colleges, knowing that the ladies would be present, turned out several hundred strong, with the design of expressing their disapproval of the action of the managers of the hospital, particularly, and of admission of women to the medical profession generally. Ranging themselves in line, these gallant gentlemen assailed the young ladies as they passed, with insolent and offensive language, and then followed them into the street, where the whole gang, with the fluency of long practice, joined in insulting these helpless, unprotected women. It was a blackguard action which deprived every man in that crowd of any claim to the title of a gentleman.”

Widely covered in newspapers, “The Jeering Episode” and the ensuing debate about women medical students reflected public opinion at the time (for the women, against the women, or neutral), preserving all sides of the story through media reports. This incident would become a turning point for the College, its students, and the general public, shifting popular opinion to favor women becoming physicians and creating the environment for future generations of women to study medicine.

The second infamous event occurred on June 2, 1915. Dr. Richard Clarke Cabot, professor of medicine at Harvard University, gave the 66th WMCP commencement address.  Instead of congratulating the 30 graduates on their success, Dr. Cabot “started out with the blunt assertion that the average woman is not fitted to become a successful general practitioner or laboratory worker, and then advised the thirty brand-new women physicians to avoid those branches of profession and devote their activities to social service. He said the competition and strenuous character of the work, not to mention the existing prejudice against female physicians, made most women “disappointed or dissatisfied” after they began to practice” (“Women Doctors Not Happy, Orator Tells 30 Getting Diplomas” Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania clippings scrapbook: Volume 5, page 411).

Cabot’s commencement speech outraged WMCP faculty, students, and medical professions across the country. At this point (75 years after the founding of WMCP), there were many women physicians practicing medicine in the U.S. and abroad who took offense to Cabot’s assertion that women physicians are “disappointed.” Like the 1869 “Jeering Episode,” there is a great record of the outcry over his speech, as reflected by the press reports and editorials in the scrapbook.

Both events stirred the “hornets’ nest,” highlighting the opinions of medical professionals, as well as those in favor of and opposed to women in medicine (and those neutral to the idea) through the press. These two sensational events ran in Pennsylvania newspapers and in papers across the nation, including New York, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Illinois. 

These incidents emphasized the struggles of women in medicine and their determination for equal education and employment despite the popular beliefs that 1) it was improper for women to study medical subjects and anatomy alongside men, 2) women physicians should only treat women and children and 3) women physicians are better suited for social medicine, not scientific or practical.

While the expression “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is personified within these scrapbooks, Dr. Gertrude Walker’s words speak to how controversial events like these can create a positive outcome:

“Dr. Cabot’s speech aroused considerable resentment at first. Later came a calmer consideration of his views. The amount of refutation of his conclusion that women physicians were disappointed that appeared in the press aroused curiosity. As a result, more women are entering the profession than ever before.”

 “Women Physicians Deny They Are “Disappointed”” Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania clippings scrapbook: Volume 5, page 490-491

“We called them our boys”: Primary Sources on WWI Caregiving

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Nov 292016

The upcoming centennial of America’s entry into World War I  – April 6, 2017 – is yet another reminder that the Legacy Center’s collections on women in medicine document the broader themes in American history as seen through the eyes of women.

Last fall I participated in a colloquium at the University of Edinburgh titled The Hidden History of Caregiving in World War I, which took place during what is known in the UK as “Remembrance Week” and includes the annual commemoration of the Armistice on November 11. I might have chosen to talk about some of the lesser known stories of the American Women’s Hospitals (AWH), an organization born in reaction to World War I, and whose large and significant collection is here at the Legacy Center. There is a great deal of mining to do in that collection, revealing more about the AWH’s efforts to serve the wartime refugee population “over there” and to serve equally with male physicians – and other stories.


Nurse Diana Lewis, circa 1917.

But a single photo album from another source, acquired in recent years, was calling out to me. It holds a rich collection of photographs and a few items of ephemera. The album belonged to a nurse, Diana Lewis, who graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania’s Nurse’s Training School in 1912. She served with the American Expeditionary Forces as a Base Hospital nurse in France. Along with the uniform jacket worn by its owner, the album was displayed in a university-wide “Highlights of the Collections” exhibition. The pages were scanned to document its original state and for easy sharing. But I still had not explored it fully and hoped there might be stories waiting to be told there, so I took a closer look.

Scattered throughout the album are three photographs of temporary grave sites – and I wanted to know why these images had been taken and preserved there.


One of the three gravesite photos in the Lewis album: Lt. Jefferson Healy was wounded at Chateau de Thierry and died three weeks later at Base Hospital 34.

Simultaneously, as I was poking around among the Center’s World War I material, I began thinking about the very few American women physicians who served as such in Europe. Fifty-six women physicians served in the American military, but were not permitted to serve as commissioned officers like their male counterparts. Instead, they were non-commissioned contract surgeons, and only eleven served at the front. Our collections are extremely thin on these women, but serendipitously, I stumbled upon an ebay auction that resulted in the acquisition of letters and some other materials by and to Dr. Elizabeth Hocker, one of the eleven, written during her tour of duty. There are only sixteen letters, but they cover a great deal – including death, dying, and what eventually became my project topic, supported by the photos in the Lewis album: emotional surrogacy for American soldiers in WWI.


Hocker correspondence: The grateful letter at the top is from the mother of Pvt. Paul Farnum to Dr. Hocker, who had sent Mrs. Farnum flowers from his gravesite.

The album and the letters inspired my exploration of end-of-life care during the war. The requirements of so many and with so few to serve, coupled with the concerns of distant families, created a new level of emphasis on emotional and logistical support. With an ocean between “our boys” and home, medical personnel began unexpectedly playing a significant role as surrogate family members and communicators. This type of caregiving was expanded for Americans because of distance – and because of an important related factor: Americans’ beliefs and rituals surrounding death and the ways in which those ideas, centering on “the good death”, had been affected by the American Civil War about fifty years earlier. The socially and politically charged history of care for the dying and dead in that conflict had a significant impact on the work of American caregivers in the first world war.

It was not easy to stay focused as I perused the photo album and correspondence collection. The images and letters document a wide variety of subjects, some more fully than others, including transportation, base hospital facilities, care of the wounded, camaraderie, attitudes toward “the Hun” and “our boys”, danger levels, wartime medicine, trenches, military exercises, holidays, French soldiers and civilians, valor, family, influenza, women, African-American troops, and of course, my particular interest: death, dying and emotional surrogacy.


Elizabeth Hocker, MD circa 1917.

I’ve developed a personal attachment to these materials, as archivists and historians do, and I’m eager to promote their use – especially now as opportunities arise to further examine the history of World War I and women’s roles in that conflict. As we commemorate the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, I think of Elizabeth Hocker’s words: “Our boys will have their praises sung for the next century.”

And we will, of course, remember what “our boys” did a hundred years ago. But it is also important to remember our caregivers, many of whom were women – those who worked ceaselessly to counterbalance acts of war and retain our humanity. The personal stories found in the Lewis and Hocker collections are waiting to be explored further and add to the body of knowledge on World War I – from the perspective of women in medicine.


If you would like to research any of these topics or items, please get in touch! archives@drexelmed.edu

Diana Lewis scrapbook, approximately 1917-1919

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Diana Lewis additional materials, approximately 1917

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Elizabeth Hocker papers, approximately 1917

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