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Women's History Month: Mary Putnam Jacobi

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March is Women’s History Month!  Here in Archives and Rare Books, we’re going to celebrate by highlighting some of the remarkable women represented in our collections.  Up first is Mary Putnam Jacobi, who disproved 19th century medical advice regarding women needing to avoid strenuous activity during menstruation.

Mary was born in 1842, and her interest in medicine manifested at any early age.  In her autobiographical manuscript, she described an incident when, at the age of nine, she discovered a dead rat.  Rather than running away in disgust, she planned to dissect it in order to see its heart.  While she admitted to being relieved that her mother prevented her from carrying out her anatomical investigation, she eventually pursued a medical career.  She began her studies at the New York College of Pharmacy in 1861, and in 1863 went on to the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (later renamed the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania).  After one year of study, she insisted that she was ready to take her examinations and graduate.  This was so unusual that when Mary was allowed to graduate in 1864, Dean Edwin Fussell resigned in protest.  The upshot of this was that it allowed Ann Preston to replace him, making her the first female dean of a medical school.

In 1866, Mary’s desire to further her medical education led her to Paris.  During her time there she gained admission to clinics and hospitals, including the famous Salpêtrière, and she also attended a number of medical lectures. She eventually earned admission to the École de Médecine at the University of Paris, and she was the second woman to receive a medical degree from the Parisian school.  She remained in Paris throughout the turbulent period of the Paris Commune, and returned to New York in 1871.  Upon her return, she lectured on materia medica at the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, and opened her own private practice. 

Mary was a prolific writer, and turned her pen to numerous subjects including materia medica, pathology, and experimental therapies such as cold baths and hypnotism.  But her most famous publication might be The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation which was originally submitted as an entry for Harvard University’s Boylston Prize in 1876.  The theme for that year’s prize was to respond to Edward H. Clarke’s work Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for the Girls (you can access the full text here). That particular work was a classic example of 19th century sexism.  In it, Clarke argued that if a woman expended too much of her energy on studying, her reproductive organs would be deprived of energy, and negatively impact her fertility.  It was especially important that they rest during menstruation in order to conserve their strength.

This work was, unsurprisingly, not popular among Cambridge feminists, who urged Mary to submit an entry for the Boylston Prize.  Mary seized the opportunity.  She circulated 1000 questionnaires among women asking them about their experiences with menstruation (discomfort, did they feel they needed rest, etc.), and analyzed the 268 that were returned.  She determined that there was no reason whatsoever for women to rest during menstruation. This essay, which was submitted anonymously, was the winning entry, making Mary the first woman to win the Prize.  An extended version of this work was published in 1877.

We salute Mary Putnam Jacobi for her takedown of incorrect assumptions about the female body!  If you would like to read more about her, you can view the National Library of Medicine’s excellent blog post, or read Chapter 6 of Susan Wells’ Out of the Dead House: 19th-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).

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