“Women’s nerves are too fragile to practice medicine,
and they’re needed to make tea.”
Where did I find this quote, which in my notes I have attributed to the Journal of the American Medical Association? Usually I’m scrupulous about dates and publications. But it was not an unusual sentiment for the time, which is maybe why I jotted it down and moved on to whatever it was I was really researching (how Victorian doctors dealt with pre-eclampsia, perhaps).
Women doctors! What a concept! When my first child was born (almost a month early), the male doctor I’d been seeing during my pregnancy was on vacation. A tall, gentle, female doctor I’d never seen before examined my newborn son. And I knew, just by the way she held him, that I wanted her to be my son’s pediatrician. Her gender didn’t matter to me, but the way she doctored did.
Dr. Miller. She’s the best.
For centuries, everywhere around the globe, the idea of letting women examine patients—complete strangers! naysayers often emphasized—was disparaged. Ridiculed. Held up as dangerous. But wouldn’t women feel more comfortable with women doctors, one argument went? This was, after all, the era of the “Ideal Woman” — sensitive, delicate, sedentary. (“The indoor woman,” some reverently called her.) And weren’t male doctors a bit, ahem, indelicate in their examinations? For a while—staving off the campaign to accept women as doctors— the learned men of medicine discussed how male doctors could examine their female patients in a more seemly way, as if this would solve the whole problem.
Dr. William Smellie (yes that’s his real name), an 18th century British obstetrician, suggested that male doctors wear a loose nightgown instead of their regular clothes when they assisted women in labor—to ease their fears. (Would it, though?) Doctors were also exhorted to avoid eye contact and idle chatter with their female patients; I’m not sure that would make me feel more comfortable, either.
But women passionate about studying medicine prevailed. They went to medical school, often surrounded by hostile men (Harvard students threw squishy tomatoes at them). They performed autopsies; they delivered babies; they amputated limbs; and they performed surgeries. In 1860 there were about 200 women practicing medicine in the United States. By 1800 there were 2,400 women doctors; and by 1900 there were more than 7,000.
Today, over one-third of all doctors in the U.S. are women.
Last summer my husband had a severe bicycle accident that landed him in the ICU. He recovered beautifully, thanks to all the excellent medical attention he received at San Francisco General (now renamed Zuckerberg San Francisco General; Mark Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, was once a pediatrician there). When I asked my husband if he’d had any women doctors over the course of his stay, he said yes.
“How many?” I wanted to know.
“I’d say there was an even mix of male and female doctors, and the same with nurses.”
And I’d say that’s how it should be.
Martha Conway teaches creative writing for Stanford University’s Online Writing Certificate program. Her forthcoming novel, The Physician’s Daughter, will be available in the United States in September.
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