Mary Putnam Jacobi

Mary Putnam as a medical student
Mary Putnam as a medical student

When people think about the first female doctors in the U.S., generally the names that come to mind are Elizabeth  and Emily Blackwell. These two sisters together with Marie Zakrzewska confronted — and overcame — the barriers that women who wanted an education and a profession faced in the mid-19th century. The evidence of their success is clear: in 1857  they founded The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, and then the associated Woman’s Medical School and a nursing school.

The next generations of female physicians still had considerable barriers to overcome, some of those barriers from within their own community.
Mary Putnam Jacobi wasn’t satisfied with the kind of medicine the Blackwells wanted to practice. Their approach was based in the belief that women were, in the first line, compassionate and thus better able to serve the emotional and spiritual needs of their patients.

Mary Putnam Jacobi disagreed, and strongly. She saw herself as a physician and scientist first, and she used hard fact, scientific method, and rational arguments to overcome the prejudice that limited female physicians.

Morantz (1982) compares Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi:

No two temperaments could have differed more profoundly. Jacobi had not a trace of sentimentality about her. Her quick and penetrating intellect cut to the core of things with a rapidity that left lesser minds bewildered. No one valued rational thinking more highly; no one remained more frustrated with mushy generalities that could not be grounded in empirical investigation and factual analysis. Jacobi chose medicine out of a love for scientific rationalism. She adored chemistry and pursued medical study with the joyous abandon of a mind comfortably at home with its rigors. …

Blackwell, in contrast, was nothing if not sentimental. She entered medicine with a perfectionist conception of morality and her own role in the moral universe. Believing that the realm of medicine and health must be a fundamental area of concern for the reformer, she wrote in 1889, “The progress and welfare of society is more intimately bound up with the prevailing tone and influence of the medical profession than with the status of any other class of men.” Indeed, Victor Robinson, a younger physician who knew and admired her, called her a “Swedenborgian-theosophical- theological-Christian-metaphysician, instead of just an unadulterated scientist.”

Morantz, Regina Markell. 1982.  “Feminism, Professionalism, and Germs: The Thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell.” American Quarterly  34.5: 459–478.

Putnam Jacobi believed that sentiment damaged the cause. If women were to be acknowledged and accepted as equal to men, they had to give up sentiment in favor of rational thought and scientific method. She proved her point not with words, but with hard fact. From Rachel Swaby’s The Godmother of American Medicine  (Atlantic Monthly, 15 April 2015):

A warning from Edward Clarke, M.D., a professor at Harvard: “There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females… graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile.”

He goes on to explain how reproductive organs fail to thrive.

The system never does two things well at the same time. The muscles [note: muscles = menstruation] and the brain cannot functionate in their best way at the same moment.

These passages are from Clarke’s book, Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance For Girls, published in 1873. The gist: Exerting oneself while on the rag is dangerous. Therefore educating women is dangerous. For a woman’s own safety, she should not pursue higher education. The womb is at stake. …

Jacobi challenged Clarke’s thinly veiled justification for discrimination with 232 pages of hard numbers, charts, and analysis. She gathered survey results covering a woman’s monthly pain, cycle length, daily exercise, and education along with physiological indicators like pulse, rectal temperature, and ounces of urine. To really bring her argument home, Jacobi had test subjects undergo muscle strength tests before, during, and after menstruation. The paper was almost painfully evenhanded. Her scientific method-supported mic drop: “There is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity, or even the desirability, of rest.” If women suffered from consumption, scrofula, anemia, and neuralgia, it wasn’t, as Clarke claimed, because they studied too hard.

Her study—sweeter for its evidence than its tone—won the Boylston Prize at Harvard University just three years after Clarke, a professor at the same school, published A Fair Chance. The Clarke versus Jacobi scholarly disagreement may sound like academic quibbling, a biased doctor against a rigorous one, but in the argument over who was allowed university admission, to have science on your side was hugely important. After Clarke’s paper fortified university walls, Jacobi systematically dismantled the barrier. Her paper was greatly influential in helping women gain opportunities in higher education—especially in the sciences.

Putnam Jacobi also disproved Clarke’s shoddy theorizing in her personal life: she married (another physician, Abraham Jacobi) and had three children; she founded the Society for the Advancement of Women in Medicine, published her research widely, co-founded a pediatric ward, and lectured at Woman’s Medical School. She was the Academy of Medicine’s first female member.

Mary Putnam was a physician who proved to her male colleagues that women had the minds and mentality to be scientists. I think she should be more widely known.  You can read The Atlantic Monthly  feature article about her: The Godmother of American Medicine.

Dr. Putnam Jacobi plays a small part in The Gilded Hour.

Mary Putnam Jacobi
Mary Putnam Jacobi

Jacobi’s last research paper tells everything there is to know about her dedication to medicine and science. “Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself” was published after her death.


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