Women in Medicine: A History of Hard Battles and Kind Hearts

Newark, early 1900s: A woman, just 5’1 with big blue eyes, stood before the board of the home for pregnant, unmarried women to challenge the director’s recommendation to cut the home’s funding – based on the prevalent notion that its residents were immoral and evil.

As UVA obstetrician Elisa Trowbridge, MD, tells it, “She got up there and said ‘Most of these women are victims of incest; are they evil?’” Her prime example: An 11-year-old girl, pregnant by her father.

It was a fight the woman — Trowbridge’s grandmother-in-law, Elizabeth Ward Trowbridge — eventually won. An obstetrician concerned with the health of these mothers and their children, she was elected as board director herself.

What’s remarkable isn’t just that these misconceptions existed, but that the challenger was a doctor. A woman doctor.

That’s because 100 years ago, most medical schools didn’t even accept women. Here at UVA, it was 1920 before the first two women were admitted to the School of Medicine.

Honoring the Pioneers

It’s a past that can be hard to imagine. After all, we live in a time where the ratio of female-to-male medical school applicants and graduates here in the US is just about even and has been so for 20-plus years.

But in the elder Trowbridge’s time, that her father “decided to educate a woman was unheard of, much less that he let her be a doctor.” Trowbridge was often the only woman in the hospital, other than nurses and staff. She was “absolutely tortured during her residency; she was given a larger patient load than her male colleagues, and they rarely helped her.” Just about everything she did took unbelievable and unremitting courage.

Under the Influence

Certainly, Elisa Trowbridge credits Elizabeth Ward Trowbridge for motivating her throughout her career. “Any time I got down on myself for working 120-hour work weeks, I would remember her. She was an astounding woman, a tremendous lady. “

As well as advocating for unwed mothers, Elizabeth Ward Trowbridge set up an infertility clinic that “had the audacity to test men. They got into a lot of trouble even requesting that men be part of the investigation. She was like, ‘Well, let’s be honest; there might be a problem.’”

Although Trowbridge worked full time and was married to an engineer, as the woman, she was still responsible for her three children. “She would go deliver babies in the middle of the night and bring all three kids with her.” Which must have made an impression; all three grew up to also become doctors.

Elisa Trowbridge continues, “I come from a long line of compassionate, hardworking women — caretakers, real thinkers. I just watched these extraordinary women take care of people — not just the physical act of taking care of people, but the kindness, too, to make them better.”

For Susan Kirk, MD, co-director of the Division of Endocrinology at UVA, kindness seems to be the quality that sets her role models apart, too.

“When I was a junior in college in the early 80s, I did an internship with a solo practice female physician in rural Maine. To this day, I look to her as the ideal physician; she was kind, she worked hard and she put her patients first, often accepting a dozen eggs for payment.”

From Fighting to Balancing

Kirk also finds inspiration in Maria Montessori, a pediatrician and first female Italian doctor.  At the time, “Indigent children were thought to be less educable than their richer counterparts; she set about to provide that if you gave them the right educational tools and the right environment, they could be just as successful.” And this led to the founding of the Montessori school system.

“She went against the male-dominated medical society to really drastically change things,” Kirk explains.

These days, Kirk doesn’t face the same kind of discrimination confronting female doctors in the past. But she does feel challenged in terms of balancing her role as a doctor with that of a parent.

“I probably haven’t done either role as well as I might have if I had only focused on one,” she admits. “But I think that by combining the two — all of us working parents, not just moms — I think we bring something to each part.  I’m probably a more tolerant or compassionate doctor, having had to be so as a mother; and my girls (14 and 21) definitely see me as pursuing the career I wanted and being more fulfilled for doing so.” Ultimately, “I feel like a good role model for them and for my younger colleagues, residents and students.”

A panel of women doctors at the launch of the “Changing the Face of Medicine” exhibit at UVA.
The March 2, 2007 launch of the “Changing the Face of Medicine” exhibit included a panel discussion by Drs. Pinn, Rheuban, Rice, and Snustad. Courtesy of Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

Continuing the Tradition

Trowbridge, Montessori — they were some of the first, but definitely not the last, as evidenced in the online exhibit by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), “Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians.” The exhibit traveled to UVA’s Claude Moore Health Sciences Library in 2007 and honors several UVA doctors and graduates, including:

  • Karen Rheuban, MD, noted for playing a key role in using telemedicine to provide health care had to rural communities
  • Diane Gail Snustad, MD, medical director for both the UVA Geriatric Clinic and the Colonnades Health Care Center
  • Laurel Wysong Rice, MD, a leading expert in cancers of the lining of the uterus
  • Vivian Pinn, MD, the only African-American and only woman to graduate from UVA in 1967, who became the first full-time director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health

The Local Legends section of the exhibit features three UVA doctors:

  • Sharon L. Hostler, MD, the School of Medicine’s senior associate dean,  played an important role in establishing developmental pediatrics at UVA
  • Barbara Starks Favazza, MD, in 1966 became the first African-American woman to receive an MD degree from UVA
  • Debra G. Perina, MD, known nationally for her leadership, mentoring and training in emergency medicine

Historical collections curator Joan Klein, when asked if current doctors might be inspired or influenced by these women, answered: “I would think, to some extent, that all of them were.”

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