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The last barrier

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


Opening doors to women in medicine required changing many minds and one bathroom.

Many factors stymied the arrival of women at the Yale School of Medicine, including societal roles, self-assessment and certainly prejudice among men on the faculty and in the wider University community. By 1916, however, only one thing seemed to stand in the way of women gaining admission: the lack of proper bathroom facilities for women. It would take a father's money and influence and a daughter's determination to overcome that last barrier.

While Johns Hopkins University was founded as a coeducational institution in 1893, most other prestigious Eastern medical schools were slow to welcome female students. According to research on women in medicine that Susan J. Baserga, M.D., Ph.D. '88, pursued as a Yale College undergraduate, Yale would wait nearly a quarter century before admitting women. Harvard held out the longest, until 1945.

By the turn of the century, however, women could study in the Yale Graduate School, and Vassar College graduate Louise Farnam took a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry there in 1916. An exceptional student, she was also intent on studying medicine so that she could travel as a medical missionary to China. “She had incredible fortitude,” says Dr. Baserga, herself now an assistant professor of therapeutic radiology and genetics. “She was very religious and was driven by her faith. Fortunately, she also had a philanthropist father.” Louise Farnam came from a family with close ties to Yale, going back to the early 1700s and continuing with her father, Henry Farnam. Farnam pére was a Yale graduate, a professor of economics, a New Haven and Yale benefactor, and a member of the board overseeing New Haven Hospital.

When his eldest daughter announced her intention to study medicine at what, until then, had been an all-male medical school, the medical school informed her that an insurmountable barrier prevented her enrollment. There was no women's bathroom in the school, which was then housed in a building, since torn down, at 150 York Street. Whether the issue of the bathroom was a genuine obstacle to the presence of women in the school–or a last ditch effort to keep them out–isn't clear from the historical record, according to Dr. Baserga.

Apparently some behind the scenes wrangling did ensue and in a letter of March 31, 1916, to then-Yale president Arthur Hadley, Professor Farnam, recognizing the matter of the lack of facilities was “considered a serious one,” offered to pay for “suitable lavatory arrangements.” President Hadley agreed, and, in the next term, Louise Farnam and two other women, Helen May Scoville and Lillian Lydia Nye, became the first women admitted to the School of Medicine. Dr. Farnam graduated in 1920, winning the Campbell Gold Prize for the highest rank in examinations. After further training at Johns Hopkins, she spent the next ten years at the new medical school and hospital established by the Yale-China Association, Yali, in Changsha.

The year following Dr. Farnam's admission to Yale saw only one woman, Ella Clay Wakeman, in the class. Female graduates of the era were well aware of the story behind the school's lone women's bathroom, which was quickly dubbed the Louise Farnam Memorial.

Women continued to be admitted to the School of Medicine after those first classes in numbers kept deliberately small by the school. Other than during World War II, until the 1960s no class counted more than 10 percent women among its members. Helen P. Langner, M.D., who graduated in 1922, was the school's oldest alumna when she died last December at age 105 (See A life of engagement).

Louise Farnam would be pleased with her legacy. Today, the right of women to enter the School of Medicine without prejudice is beyond challenge. In fact, this year's graduating class was the first ever to arrive at Yale with more women than men among its members. “Physicians like Dr. Farnam and Dr. Langner helped pave the way for many younger women,” says Merle Waxman, M.A., associate dean and director of the Office of Women in Medicine. “I think they and their contemporaries took great pride in that.”