100 Years of Women in Medicine: Opening Doors at Johns Hopkins and Beyond  
Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 10:25PM

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When the new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at The Johns Hopkins Hospital opens in April 2012, it will carry the legacy of a string of women who helped to shape medicine and advance the idea of care and community.

Whether motivated by ambition, compassion, or the desire to make a difference, these women all made difficult choices and persevered against the status quo to make their contributions recognized as doctors, researchers, professors, and healthcare visionaries. Because of their breakthroughs, children today receive better care, women have a greater voice in prescribing and receiving treatment, and medicine has benefitted from a greater pool of talent and perspective.

Talented and driven, these women built upon each other’s success. Mary Elizabeth Garrett fought to have women admitted to medical school on the same basis as men. Florence Rena Sabin stepped through the door Mary Elizabeth opened and became the first woman to hold a faculty position at the school of medicine. Helen Taussig transferred to Johns Hopkins because Harvard did not admit women into medical school, and excelled against all odds to become a cardiologist and a pioneer in the treatment of “blue baby” syndrome. Even before women won the right to vote in 1920, these mothers and daughters were all making strides, moving women from the sidelines to the frontlines of medicine.

Today, according to the American Medical Association, women make up nearly 30% of all physicians and 45% of all residents/fellows, 27% of physicians in medical teaching, 20.6% in administration and 22.3% in research. Since 1975, the number of female physicians has grown six-fold, from 35,626 to 287,683 in 2009. 

This is a long way from 1874, when the president of one of the nation’s top universities told the trustees of Johns Hopkins University why he disapproved of coeducation:

Students might fall in love, which could produce disastrous, socially unequal marriages; women would have trouble keeping up with the academic pace and hold up instruction for the men; the stress could prove so severe that the women might fall ill and destroy their chances of good marriages; and finally, a woman's future was so different from a man's that there was no point in educating them together.

The history surrounding the new Bloomberg Children’s Center can be seen as a microcosm of the rise of women in medicine and their influence in shaping the quality of care. Here are some of their stories: 

Harriet Lane (1830 – 1903)

Helped to establish the first hospital in the nation devoted to children.

A niece of James Buchanan, Harriet served as “first lady” during her bachelor uncle’s Presidency, using her position to advance the arts and social causes.  When she lost both her young sons within one year to fever, Harriet turned her attention to children’s health issues. One of her most enduring legacies is the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, which was established in her sons’ memory. It was the first hospital in the nation devoted to children and the forerunner to the new Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center. The Harriet Lane Home eventually treated over 60,000 children a year and became a pioneer treatment, teaching, and research clinic.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett (1854 - 1915) 

Opened the door to medical school to women, laid foundation for girls’ education in “male” subjects.

Known as an intelligent strategist, Mary Elizabeth is considered to have pioneered the practice of “coercive philanthropy.” As founder of the Women’s Medical School Fund Committee, she proposed to raise funds for the Johns Hopkins medical school only if the trustees would agree to admit women on an equal basis as men. School officials were reluctant to agree to her demands but Mary Elizabeth persevered. As a result, when the school opened in 1893, three women were admitted into the very first medical class. The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine would become the first coeducational, graduate level medical school in the United States. But Mary Elizabeth’s contributions would not be recognized for years. When supporters proposed to honor her with a portrait, trustees at first refused and later compromised, agreeing to pay for half of the portrait of the woman who “built” the medical school.

Along with a group of progressive young women, Mary Elizabeth also formed the “Friday Evening” group, whose ideas led to great changes for women’s education. Among them was the formation of the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in 1885 (named after the college in Pennsylvania). The girls’ school was one of the first to emphasize traditional “male” subjects such as mathematics, sciences, modern and classical languages, and physical education. When the school opened, one Chicago critic wrote: “Why does not Miss Garrett or some other philanthropist invest a quarter of a million dollars in a model school of domestic economy, in which to prepare girls for housekeeping and home making?”

Isabel Hampton Robb (1859 – 1910)

Elevated the field of nursing to provide women with highly skilled opportunities.

At a time when much of the medical profession was still shut to women, Isabel made her way in one of the fields deemed acceptable for women—nursing.  Her work laid much of the groundwork for modern nursing theory, education and organization, expanding the field of knowledge to provide highly skilled opportunities for women in the profession.  Florence Nightingale was said to be an admirer of Isabel’s work.

As the first superintendent of nurses and principal of the training school at the newly opened Johns Hopkins Hospital, Isabel proceeded to impose a grading system and other structures into nursing education. Her efforts were aimed at elevating the profession, which did not draw the respect of male physicians. Isabel literally wrote the textbook on nursing, later helping to found the American Journal of Nursing.

In 1896, she became the first President of the Nurses' Associated Alumnae, which later became the American Nurses Association. She had helped to start the organization to address the concerns and welfare of nurses. Nursing students worked long hours (as much as 56 hours week), were often the subject of practical jokes, and were forbidden from getting married. Isabel herself was rumored to have been asked to resign when she got married. 

Isabel continued her leadership in nursing as a working mother. She was instrumental in establishing the course in hospital economics at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1899.  She secured a place for professional nurses within the Red Cross Nursing Service and her work led to the establishment of the National League for Nurses and the Army Nurse Corps. She also wrote two additional textbooks on nursing.  Today, many of her reforms are still in place.

Florence Rena Sabin (1871 – 1953) 

The first woman to hold a faculty position at the school of medicine.

Florence worked as a teacher, one of the few professions open to women at the time, to save money for a new co-educational medical school she had heard about.  In 1896, she entered the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which had opened its doors to women just three years earlier. She received her M.D. in 1900 and became one of the first two female interns at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 1902, she became the first woman to hold a faculty position at the school of medicine. In 1917, Florence became the first woman at Johns Hopkins to be appointed to a full professorship. She was also the first woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences. 

At various stages of her life, Florence benefitted from the support of other women and women’s groups, including the Baltimore Association for the Promotion of University Education for Women, which awarded her a fellowship for postdoctoral work in 1901.  In return, she gave back in her own way.  For ten years she donated her time to the Evening Dispensary for Working Women and Girls, which was founded by a group of women physicians in Baltimore.

In 1929, Florence said: I hope my studies may be an encouragement to other women, especially to young women, to devote their lives to the larger interests of the mind. It matters little whether men or women have the more brains; all we women need to do to exert our proper influence is just to use all the brains we have."

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall (1874-1964)

Leader in maternal and child health.

Every new mother today knows that there are height and weight norms to gauge a child’s proper growth rate. This is thanks in part to Dorothy’s pioneering work during World War II, when she was named a medical officer of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. In that time, she performed studies of war orphanages and children’s nutrition, and her work included a nationwide drive to weigh and measure all children under six in order to call attention to the prevalence of malnutrition.

Along with Florence Sabin, Dorothy was one of the pioneering female students in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine class of 1900. Both women went on to become the first female interns accepted at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Although Dorothy spent much of her career as a pediatrician, she is best known for her research involving the study of a red blood cell, which helped physicians understand that Hodgkin’s disease was not a form of tuberculosis.

It was the death of her infant daughter and the nutritional problems she faced with her son that prompted her to shift her attention to maternal and child health, focusing in particular on infant mortality rates, prenatal care and child nutrition. In 1915, she organized the first infant welfare clinic in Madison, which resulted in the city having the lowest infant mortality rate in the country.

Helen B. Taussig (1898 - 1986) 

Excelled despite being deaf and dyslexic, developed treatment for “blue baby” syndrome.

In addition to being a woman in a male-dominated field, Helen also suffered from dyslexia and had lost most of her hearing by the time she graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1927.  It is a testament to her strength, and determination that she excelled against the odds.  She is often credited as the founder of pediatric cardiology for her pioneering work in the diagnosis and treatment of congenital heart disease, specifically the development of the surgical procedure for "blue baby" syndrome.

Helen began her studies at Harvard but because women were not admitted to medical school there, she eventually transferred to Johns Hopkins. After a two-year internship in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Helen was appointed physician-in-charge of the Harriet Lane Cardiac Clinic, a position she held until 1963. In 1959, she became the second woman to become a full professor at Johns Hopkins. In 1965 she became the first female president of the American Heart Association. In 1964, she received the Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson.

Charlotte R. Bloomberg (1909 – 2011)

Ensured continuing legacy of quality care in the facility that bears her name

Charlotte Rubens Bloomberg was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1909 and graduated from high school at the age of 16.  She earned a bachelors degree in accounting from New York University in 1929, a time when few women attended college, and took a job as an auditor at Breakstone Dairy. In 1934, she married William H. Bloomberg, whom she had met while working at Breakstone, and they settled in Medford, Massachusetts, where they raised two children, Michael and Marjorie.

In his 1997 autobiography, Michael Bloomberg wrote that his mother taught him the value of hard work, intellectual curiosity and ambition to achieve his goals. He noted the importance she placed on family togetherness, including having a proper family dinner every night because, "we've got to take care of each other." 

Throughout her life, Mrs. Bloomberg remained an active community volunteer in her hometown of Medford, MA. She served as co-president of her synagogue, Temple Shalom, when she was in her nineties.  In 2003, she traveled to Israel with her two children to dedicate, in her name, a maternity and pediatric center at Hadassah Hospital.  To mark her 100th birthday, the family funded a children's center in her name at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and they created a Charlotte Bloomberg professorship in the study of art history at Johns Hopkins University.

She passed away in June 2011 at the age of 102 years old.


Read about other women pioneers at Johns Hopkins

Note: Gertrude Stein attended Johns Hopkins medical school for two years but did not graduate. Her earliest writings were about her college experiences.


About Bloomberg Philanthropies

Bloomberg Philanthropies works primarily to advance five areas globally: the Arts, Education, the Environment, Government Innovation and Public Health. In 2011, $330 million was distributed.  

 About The Johns Hopkins Children’s Center

Part of The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, was founded in 1912 through a generous donation from Harriet Lane and Henry Johnston and was the first children’s hospital associated with an academic medical center. Today, Johns Hopkins offers one of the most comprehensive pediatric medical programs in the world. It has recognized Centers of Excellence in dozens of pediatric subspecialties, including allergy, cardiology, cystic fibrosis, gastroenterology, nephrology, neurology, neurosurgery, oncology, pulmonary, and transplant. The Johns Hopkins Children’s Center is consistently ranked among the nation’s top pediatric hospitals by US News & World Report. In May 2012, it will move from its current location to The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, a state-of-the-art 205-bed pediatric hospital made possible by a generous donation from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Hopkins alumnus and former trustee, and other supporters. The Bloomberg Children’s Center honors Mayor Bloomberg’s mother, who died in 2011 at the age of 102. 


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