Women in Medicine: Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer


We’ve met some pretty impressive doctors so far in the Women in Medicine series. Emily Dunning Barringer was another early doctor who kicked it up a notch.

Born in 1876, Emily Dunning came into a world in which women doctors were rare, but not unheard of. Her parents believed that their daughters as well as their sons should have the skills to support themselves. During a hard time for the family, a friend suggested that ten-year-old Emily be trained as a milliner’s apprentice, which prompted her mother to declare: “That settles the question. You are going to go to college." Family friend Mary Putnam Jacobi, another pioneering doctor, recommended she study premed at Cornell University. And so she did.

After graduating in 1897, Dunning earned her medical degree from Cornell in 1901. Dunning had to lobby hard for permission to take the exam to secure a medical internship in New York City's hospitals, but was only allowed to sit for the test on the understanding that it wouldn’t get her a position. Her score placed her second of all the new doctors taking the exam. Still, every hospital refused her an internship. It was only after the intervention of politicians and respected religious figures (as well as Dr. Jacobi) lobbying on her behalf that Dunning was accepted into the internship program at Gouverneur Hospital in Manhattan a year later. She was the first woman resident the hospital had ever hired.

Gouverneur Hospital was on the Lower East Side, and Dunning was assigned the most difficult shifts and ward duties. Her male colleagues tried to get her fired. But she pressed on, and gradually earned the respect of her peers and patients alike.

In 1903, Dunning was appointed “Ambulance Surgeon,” the first woman to hold that position in New York. Fellow doctors had opposed the appointment, saying a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the rough rides in the horse-drawn ambulances. On her first ride, she refused help climbing into the ambulance. Thereafter, her work earned the respect of city police and firefighters, as well as doctors and patients.

Dunning married fellow doctor Benjamin Barringer after they both completed their residencies. Dr. Emily Barringer found work on the gynecological staff at New York Polyclinic Hospital and became an attending surgeon at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Her activism went on display during both world wars, as she raised money for ambulances to be sent to the front during World War I, and then during World War II campaigned for the right of women doctors serving in the military to receive commissioned officer status and enjoy the same benefits as men. By then she had clout, as Barringer was elected president of the American Medical Women's Association in 1941. Her lobbying resulted in the Sparkman Act of 1943, which granted those rights.

Between the wars, Barringer became a surgeon at Kingston Avenue Hospital in Brooklyn and rose to head of the gynecology department. In 1950, she published her autobiography, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York’s First Woman Ambulance Surgeon.

In 1952, a movie starring June Allyson was loosely based on Dr. Barringer’s life, called The Girl in White, despite the fact that both the movie character and Dr. Barringer wore dark colors. See a clip from the movie. The takeaway quote: “They’ll be wantin’ to vote next!”

See more posts in the Women in Medicine series.