We Are Not Coexisting but Existing Together: 100 Years of Medical Women’s International Association

 From the collections  Comments Off on We Are Not Coexisting but Existing Together: 100 Years of Medical Women’s International Association
Oct 092019

– by Kyah Hawkins, Archives Assistant  

Before MWIA

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA). The organization was started for women doctors all over the world to have the opportunity to discuss medical issues that affected them and their international counterparts and hopefully find a medical solution to right the problems. MWIA was the first organization that united medical women internationally. In fact, at the time there only existed two national women physician societies, American Medical Women’s Association and Medical Women’s Federation, Great Britain. Both were still in their early stages as well, 1915 and 1917, respectively.

After the Great War ended and everyone tried to return to their normal lives, it was brought to the attention of women physicians that their countries had problems that could be solved by uniting forces and trading ideas. The International Conference of Women Physicians was held in New York City by the Social Morality Committee of the War Council that was under the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA). The American Woman’s Medical Association (AMWA) saw this as a perfect opportunity to host a dinner honoring all the women who worked in France in the War Zone, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the city to celebrate accomplishments during the war. So, on October 21, 1919, Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy acted as toastmistress to women of sixteen different nationalities, while Dr. Martha Welpton wrote notes that would be the official start of MWIA

As the many women physicians talked and listened to each other throughout the night about the various topics that ailed their countries and the idea that there should be constant communication to bring this unique community together, blossomed. As the doctors gave their speeches about the state of health in their nations, Dr. Kristin Munch of Norway was the first to express the need for an international organization of women doctors to begin work for the better of mankind

Actions Not Words: Building MWIA

By the end of the night it was decided that Dr. Lovejoy was to be temporary chairman and Dr. Welpton acting secretary. Lovejoy originally chose a committee of international doctors to hold the power of creating the constitution and appointing the Executive committee. But as the women met again on October 24th, many of the foreign doctors objected to the appointment of such an important committee by a temporary chairperson.  Therefore, the women held a secret ballot to appoint the new Committee of Twelve. The new ballot added one more member than Lovejoy did and only changed two people. One could wonder why this was maybe the doctors did not agree or like one of the people chosen to be on the committee or they truly wanted the organization to be democratic. By holding a vote, everyone’s opinion was heard. 

On October 25, 1919, for the first time the Medical Women’s International Association met to construct a constitution for the first ever international medical association and appoint the officers, executive board and country representatives. Welpton is credited as the one who chose of the name, Medical Women’s International AssociationLovejoy was named president, Christine Murrel, England, first vice president L. Thuillier-LandryFrance, second vice president, Munch, third vice president, Marie Feyler, Switzerland, recording secretary,  Welpton, corresponding secretary and Ellen Potter, USA, treasurer.  

The Constitution 

The preamble to their newly formed constitution (that later will be revised at the 1922 Geneva Congress) read: “best conserve the high ideals actuating women physicians in their efforts to help raise the standard of life in different parts of the world…”. The idea of women physicians coming together to solve these issues was so significant because no other international medical organization existed that pertained to the unique view of women physicians. The organization allowed the women to strengthen their right to practice medicine because they discussed issues that they cared about such as the health problems with prostitution, the white slave trade (human trafficking) and home hygiene.  

The women meeting in 1919 wanted MWIA to be for every women physician no matter how long they had been practicing medicine. MWIA’s purpose was to keep a strong bond between women doctors across the world and hopefully develop lasting friendships in their professional and personal lives. In Article III of MWIA’s constitution, it is written that there will be no talk of political, religious or countervails topics that effect the inter-relationships of two or more countries.” They wanted a truly international organization that did not ostracize medical women during anytime. Everyone was welcomed and encouraged to join. MWIA made it clear that they are not bound by any government and the only laws that should affect the inner workings of the organization was those placed in their constitution. This is important when conflicts that started World War II arose, especially from Germany and Italy. In fact, the governments of each country dissolved their national societies of women physicians but MWIA still allowed for individual members to join. 

MWIA survived for 100 years because of the strong dedication of women doctors who saw problems everywhere that they wanted to solve. Instead of just sitting back and relaxing after many of these women healed those affected by a terrible war, MWIA members sprang into action. The women believed that, “More and more are we coming to a realization that no people and no nation can stand alone. We cannot afford to occupy an isolated position…” The only way anything could change was to leave nationalism behind, stopping wars and to realize that we are not coexisting but existing together.  

Members of the Medical Women’s International Association attending the 1922 Geneva Conference, the first after the inception of the association. 80 medical women from 12 different countries were in attendance at the meeting.

 Posted by on October 9, 2019

Deep bonds and intimate friendships: Letters to Ada Pierce McCormick

 From the collections, In Her Own Right, Interns  Comments Off on Deep bonds and intimate friendships: Letters to Ada Pierce McCormick
Sep 262019

-by Jessica Pifer,  Archives Intern

The majority of what makes up Ada Peirce McCormick’s materials at the Legacy Center is her personal correspondence; namely, the letters she received from her friends Dr. Emma Elizabeth Musson and Dr. Elizabeth Clark over the course of 40 years, beginning in 1908. As I have worked through Ada’s file, I am reminded of the deep bonds and intimate friendships that can be maintained even through a much less instantaneous form of communication than what I have grown up using, and I begin to form my own relationship with the women. Although the file consists only of the letters Ada received and none of the letters she wrote, therefore representing half of the conversation at hand, the close bond between these women is palpable.

We are not sure of the nature of the relationship between these three women, or how they came to be part of one another’s lives, as Ada was not a physician, yet she was deeply connected to the medical community. The development and intimacy of their friendship rather than Ada’s connection to medicine—or lack thereof—is what makes this collection truly invaluable. Ada’s letters are a reflection of women’s history, as they provide insight into the relationships between women, as well as the unique experience of women entering a historically male-sphere; medicine. 

Elizabeth Clark, who in later letters signs off as Izzie, seems to share an especially close bond with Ada. In an earlier letter, dated in January of 1909, Izzie tries to convince Ada to come visit her and Emma Elizabeth Musson, or Elizabeth, in Philadelphia where Izzie studied and Elizabeth worked as a professor at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP). Although we do not have Ada’s letters, it seems as though Ada is concerned that her visit would be an imposition, as Izzie writes to Ada: “and besides we really and truly and honestly want you– don’t you understand,  you idiot” (a164_b01f02_002). It is clear that Ada does not want to burden Elizabeth or Izzie with her stay, but equally clear in the lighthearted and teasing way that Izzie speaks with Ada that the two women are close.

While it is unclear to me the exact nature of Ada’s visit to Philadelphia, it seems as though it is a personal visit rather than professional, as Ada was not a physician. In October of 1908, Izzie did offer professional advice to Ada: “stick to a certain kind of work—anything will do—until you perfect yourself in it—do everything for your own benefit for 5 or 6 years until your work has a certain value, then let yourself loose on the unsuspecting public.” [a164_b01f01_002] Izzie’s advice for Ada is not only insightful and supportive but it is truly timeless. In letters such as this one, I forget for a moment that I am an outsider looking into someone else’s past.

Letter from Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada McCormick.

Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada McCormick, 4 January 1909.

Izzie is a big personality, to say the least. She writes to Ada with beautiful imagery and exceptional wit; she is a kind and loving friend who is not afraid to be frank or honest. Over the course of their friendship, her deep love for Ada is clear even in the way she addresses her letters to Ada, as Izzie begins many of her notes with pet names for Ada such as “Kid,” “Kidlets,” “My Angelic Pup,” “Dearest Blonde Baby,” or “Pie-faced Angel-child,” among many other endearing nicknames. 

The women write to one another about everything: what goes on in their daily lives, the issues they’re facing at the time, and even about how silly they feel for being grown women with crushes. In one letter, Izzie writes to Ada about the stress she feels regarding graduation and sitting for the state board exam. In another, Izzie tells Ada “do not flatter yourself that you are past crushes—it is often a disease of childhood but can and does occur at any age in any sex and in any walk of life.” I see myself and my friends in these letters. I feel their academic stress, I am learning from their advice for one another, and their jokes make me smile. Through Ada’s letters I am able to not only imagine their lives, but I feel as though I am able to personally know these women.

Letter from Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 20 April 1909.

Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 20 April 1909.

Letter to Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 14 June 1909.

Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 14 June 1909.

Letter from Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 2 February 1909.

Elizabeth F. Clark to Ada Peirce McCormick, 2 February 1909.

After scanning and processing more than 50 letters, I found a letter that Ada received on August 2nd, 1949 from Dr. Elise Whitlock Rose, a mutual friend between her and Izzie, informing Ada of Izzie’s death earlier in the summer of 1949. Dr. Whitlock Rose described Izzie as “one of the most serious, skillful, and unselfish surgeons I have ever seen,” reiterating my personal understanding of Izzie as a successful and strong woman. It was not until I was taken aback and genuinely saddened by the report of Izzie’s death that I realized how much of a relationship and a feeling of closeness I had developed for these women. As I have worked through Ada’s files and read her 100-year-old letters, I obviously understood that these women had passed away many years ago, but what I did not know was how alive Izzie and Ada would still feel to me.

Letter from Elise Whitlock Rose to Ada McCormick, 2 August 1949.

Elise Whitlock Rose to Ada McCormick, 2 August 1949.

An individual’s body of correspondence has the unique ability to connect historians and researchers to the past in a very intimate way. By reading Ada’s letters, I have become connected to a period in history that has often felt foreign to me due to the significant differences between my life and the lives of women at that time. My hope is that through my work this summer digitizing Ada’s correspondence, other researchers will be able to develop their own relationship with her and her friends.

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 Posted by on September 26, 2019