Women in medicine

In honor of Women’s History Month, this post will highlight some of the roles women have played in the field of medicine throughout history.

Evidence from surviving artwork and texts reveals that women in ancient Rome and Egypt were physicians. At this time, the practice of medicine in most parts of the world was closely tied to religion and most cultures believed that sickness was brought on by sin or unhappy gods. Egyptian medical practice included physicians, surgeons, and sorcerers. Certain types of sickness and disease were treated spiritually, and other ailments were treated with medication or surgery. Some women who were part of the medical field may have been sorcerers; other female physicians may have limited their practice to midwifery and other areas dealing only with other women. It is not unlikely that some ancient female physicians may have attended to male patients as well.

The story of women in medicine after the Dark Ages is mostly the story of sexism and their struggle for equality. Women continued to practice midwifery and nursing, but were usually excluded from formal training in medical universities and professional organizations. There were exceptions. For example, when Germany began licensing physicians in the 14th century, there are some records of licensed female physicians. In France, a woman named Madame Boursier published a scientific book on midwifery in 1626. In Italy, Anna Morandi Manzolini was a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna in the 18th century.

In the United States, the first approved, legal medical school for women opened in 1850. The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania was created with support from the Quaker community and a few male physicians willing to teach women. Similar schools were quickly established in New York, Boston, Cleveland, and Baltimore. By the turn of the 19th century there was scattered support for women to attend medical school with male students and female medical colleges began to integrate into larger university medical schools.

Youngstown’s first female physician began practicing in 1873, about 50 years after male physicians had come to the area. Her name was Helen Betts and she was a native of Vienna, OH. She had a medical degree and was also the first female member of the Mahoning Valley Medical Society.

The Mahoning Valley also had several schools to train nurses. The first was the Youngstown Hospital Association School of Nursing which began in 1896. Nurses assisted with surgery, fed patients, and assisted with housekeeping duties. They were expected to uphold a high moral code and adhere to strict rules. The Warren City/Trumbull Memorial Hospital and Saint Elizabeth Hospital also had nursing schools which opened in 1907 and 1911 respectively.

Youngstown Hospital Association student nurse uniform, c1956
Youngstown Hospital Association student nurse uniform, c1956

During World War II the Mahoning Valley participated in the Cadet Nurses Corps, which was a federal project to train nurses in an accelerated program in order to relieve the nursing shortage on the home front. Many local nurses were trained in this program over 4 years.

uniform of St. Elizabeth Hospital Cadet Nurse, c1943
uniform of St. Elizabeth Hospital Cadet Nurse, c1943

Happy Women’s History month!

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