Women in Medicine: 5 Firsts in Their Nations


As we read last week, Dr. Anandi Joshee was the first Indian woman to receive a Western medical degree. In another chapter in a series on women in medicine, let’s meet some other pioneers who were the first women doctors in their countries.

1. Dorothea Erxleben

Dorothea Erxleben was a very early feminist who became the first woman medical doctor in Germany. Born in 1715 in Quedlinburg, Prussia, Dorothea Leporin studied alongside her brother when few women received any education at all. Her father Christian Polycarp Leporin, a doctor who believed in women’s education, petitioned Frederick the Great to allow his daughter to attend university classes. A relatively enlightened monarch, Frederick’s Department of Intellectual Affairs granted the request, and Dorothea attended the University of Halle. That does not mean they let her take final exams and graduate.

At age 25, she married Deacon Erxleben and raised his five children plus four she bore herself. All the while, Erxleben practiced medicine in Quedlinburg and did constant battle against those who declared that women can’t be doctors, and shouldn’t even be educated. The first patient who died under her care was elderly, but Erxleben’s opponents seized the opportunity to discredit her and took her to court under charges of practicing medicine without a license and witchcraft. In her defense, Erxleben offered her dissertation and challenged the court to let her take the university exams. After a year of discussion, she was allowed to sit for the exams and passed with flying colors. She was finally awarded a medical degree from Halle in 1754. Dr. Erxleben continued to treat the women and the poor of Quedlinburg until her death in 1762. The University of Halle didn’t graduate another woman doctor until 1901.

2. Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in America to receive a degree in medicine. She was a women’s rights pioneer, but at first she did not wish to work in medicine, as the human body disgusted her. Instead, she studied history and metaphysics and became a teacher. Blackwell later said a dying friend of hers remarked that her suffering would have been less if there were a woman doctor available to her. That’s when she decided to study medicine. After a couple of years studying with doctors she knew, Blackwell applied to medical schools, and was rejected by dozens of them. Geneva Medical College accepted her in 1847. The faculty there had put her admittance to a vote among the medical students, assuming she would be rejected. However, the students voted “yes” as a joke.

Blackwell graduated two years later, in 1849. She interned for two years in London and Paris, expecting to become a surgeon. However, her eyesight was damaged by an infection she contracted from a patient, and she resigned herself to a career in general practice. Despite her pioneering degree, Dr. Blackwell found it difficult to get a job or network with male colleagues back in New York. So she opened a private practice, and later an infirmary and a medical school for women.

3. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman medical doctor in England in 1865. Anderson was an educated woman who was influenced by the feminist Emily Davies and inspired by American doctor Elizabeth Blackwell. Anderson was rejected by many medical schools and studied to be a nurse while working on her admittance. She took medical classes at Middlesex Hospital as a nursing student alongside male medical students. Anderson discovered that the Society of Apothecaries had no specific rules against women doctors, probably because they had never considered the idea. She took the society’s exams and passed them, allowing her to become a doctor. The Society then officially barred women from taking the exams.

Unable to gain employment, Anderson opened her own practice in London, and later founded the St. Mary's Dispensary for Women and Children. She also learned French in order to study at the Sorbonne, where she received a medical degree in 1870. Anderson joined the British Medical Association in 1873, which was another case of an organization not having a specific rule against women. The BMA enacted such a rule after Anderson joined. Still, she was later elected president of her chapter.

There are some who would argue that the first woman to receive an M.D. in England was Dr. James Barry; however, Barry, who was born Margaret Ann Bulkley, earned his degree and lived his adult life as a man.

4. Madeleine Brès

Although Elizabeth Garrett Anderson received a degree from the Sorbonne in 1870, the first French woman to become a doctor was Madeleine Gebelin Bres. Young Madeleine began to volunteer at a hospital when she was only eight years old, and impressed the nuns in charge, who encouraged her to go into medical service. She married at 15, and in 1866 inquired at a medical school about attending. The dean told her to come back when she had a baccalaureate. Which she did. At age 26, she had to obtain the intervention of Empress Eugénie and the French Ministry of Education, as well as her husband’s permission, to enroll at the Faculty of Medicine of Paris in 1868.

When many male students were called up to military service in 1870 and ’71, Bres stayed behind to treat the wounded and other patients during two sieges of Paris. The experience delayed her studies, but impressed her superiors. Bres graduated with a medical degree in 1875. Dr. Bres devoted the next 50 years to serving the medical needs of mothers and children.

5. Maria Montessori

We know Maria Montessori because of the early childhood educational system she developed and the many schools that bear her name. But equally impressive is the fact that she was the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree. Born in 1870, Montessori defied expectations in a country that was still very conservative when it came to women’s education. Some have said that it took the intervention of Pope Leo XIII to get Montessori enrolled in the University of Rome's medical program, but there is no real evidence of that. When she graduated in 1896, the printing template of the school’s diplomas had to be altered to accommodate her gender. Her work at a children’s hospital led to her work in educational theory.

Read about other early women doctors in the previous posts Women in Medicine: 6 Pioneering Activists and Women in Medicine: Dr. Anandi Joshee.