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A century of women in medicine at Yale

June 21, 2017
by Natasha Strydhorst

In 1916, more than 100 years after its founding, the Yale School of Medicine admitted its first female students. At the time, this stood in marked contrast to the ethos of other institutions like Harvard, which considered it “unladylike” for women to attend medical school. By necessity, the three women admitted to the Class of 1916 were exceptional—unlike their male counterparts, who needed only two years of college education, they had to hold a college degree, and a quota further restricted the number of women admitted.

One of the three, Louise Farnam, held a Ph.D. in Physiological Chemistry from Yale. Although commonly known for her connection to the “Louise Farnam memorial bathrooms” (a donation from her father, an economics professor at Yale, made a women’s lavatory possible, paving the way for female enrollment), Farnam was remarkable in her own right. Her story remains a source of inspiration to women in the medical field to this day.

In a talk in the Historical Library at this year’s reunion, Susan Baserga, M.D. ’88, Ph.D. ’88, FW ’93, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, of genetics and therapeutic radiology, recounted Farnam’s story as she traced the history of women at the School of Medicine. In 1978, while Baserga was an undergraduate at Yale College, her interest in the topic was sparked by a women in medicine course taught by Florence Haseltine, M.D., and Lisa Anderson, then-director of the Office for Women in Medicine. In this course, Mary Roth Walsh, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts spoke about barriers to women in medicine. In her talk, Roth Walsh noted an intriguing trend: more women practiced medicine before the turn of the 19th century than shortly thereafter—when a college education, available almost exclusively to men, became essential to being a physician.

Women now comprise about 50 percent of enrolled students, 24 percent of professors, and three department chairs at the School of Medicine. While 5 percent of physicians in the United States in 1920 were women, that number is now 34 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

When Farnam entered the medical school, her goal was to serve as a missionary to China. She graduated with highest honors alongside the honor of being selected as a commencement speaker. In 1921, she began her work in China at Yali (the College of Yale-in-China), the Changsha mission that opened in 1906. She further distinguished herself there, when, in 1930—during the civil war between Nationalists and Communists—she surrendered a spot on the evacuation vessel to tend a wounded soldier. “I hate to go off and leave a man with a bullet in his chest liable to have pneumonia with no doctor on board. So I stayed,” she wrote to her parents.

In the class following Farnam’s, only one woman was enrolled: Ella Wakeman. “There was no fuss about this,” Wakeman wrote, implying that this was because of her down-to-earth attitude, sensible clothing, and neatness. Reflecting on her lab partner, she wrote, “It was probably a trial to him to have a partner in whose presence he had to behave.”

Even as both medicine and the representation of women in the field have advanced markedly since the years of Farnam’s and Wakeman’s attendance at Yale, the underrepresentation of women in biomedical research remains a source of concern.

“Those of us who have benefitted from the opportunity of attending the Yale School of Medicine can thank the courageous women who came before us: the Louise Farnams and Ella Wakemans who broke down barriers to our education,” Baserga said. “And we must also remember their fathers and mothers, who believed that their daughters’ education was just as important as their sons’.”

Submitted by Tiffany Penn on June 21, 2017