Honor the women who made it happen

March 29, 2007|By Signe Lauren

In an era when women were generally not accepted in the workplace or higher education, several Baltimore women defied the odds and changed the course of medical history.

The year was 1893. Mary Elizabeth Garrett, M. Carey Thomas, Mary Gwinn, Julia Rogers and Elizabeth King knew that the board of trustees of the Johns Hopkins University was having trouble getting the money together to open a school of medicine. The four doctors who were going to start the school were receiving offers from other universities and were getting antsy. The board was afraid of losing them and was desperately seeking a benefactor.

It was the opportunity that Garrett and Thomas were looking for. They seized the moment and developed a plan. With Gwinn, Rogers and King, they formed the Women's Fund Committee, which raised the required $500,000 (a whopping $350,000 of it donated by Garrett).

But their money came with stipulations: that women be admitted to the School of Medicine on equal terms with men; that the School of Medicine be a graduate school with a four-year course for a degree of doctor of medicine; and that applicants have a bachelor's degree with courses in physics, chemistry and biology and a reading knowledge of French and German.

At that time, no standards existed for admission and graduation requirements at American medical schools. These stipulations were a hard pill for the trustees to swallow - especially admitting women. But Thomas wouldn't back down, and eventually the board capitulated.

The collective brains and bucks of Garrett and Thomas bullied the Hopkins board of trustees and opened the doors to higher education for women in Baltimore. They also set the academic standards for what became one of the finest schools of medicine in the world. The medical school enrolled its first class in October 1893 and admitted three women. It would be more than 100 years before enrollment reached 50 percent women.

Who were these remarkable women? As Women's History Month draws to a close, their lives are worth examining.

Garrett was the only daughter of John Work Garrett, president of the B&O Railroad. At her father's side in her teens, she developed a keen business mind and learned how to negotiate. She inherited a fortune and became a generous philanthropist. Garrett had a strong interest in higher education for women.

Carey Thomas wrote in her journal at age 18, "I have to see thousands of boys enjoying and often throwing away the chances I would give anything for." She graduated from Cornell University in 1877, bucking her father's objection to women pursuing a college degree. She studied at the University of Leipzig in Germany but was refused a degree because she was a woman.

Hopkins told Thomas she could enroll in graduate school but not attend classes with the men; instead, she was privately tutored. In 1882, she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Zurich, summa cum laude. After she returned to America, she was appointed professor of English and dean of Bryn Mawr College, and later became its president.

Had the Hopkins board not accepted the deal, these women most likely would have taken their money and their stipulations elsewhere. They were determined to pave the way for the empowerment of women.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of The Four Doctors who founded the School of Medicine is world known. A photograph of the "five women" should be just as famous - these women made the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine happen. A sculpture of the photograph would be stunning in Carrara marble.

Soon there will be a new entrance to Johns Hopkins Medicine on Orleans Street. The women's sculpture could be placed at the entrance in a sculpture garden. This could be a project of the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The time to celebrate the remarkable achievement of these Baltimore women has come.

Signe Lauren, who works for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a freelance writer from Baltimore. Her e-mail is signelauren@yahoo.com.

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