#TBT: When Boston first admitted women to medical school

Boston Female Medical College opened this week in 1848.

Male physicians attending to women during childbirth were “unnecessary, unnatural, and injurious to the physical welfare of the community,’’ Boston physician Dr. Samuel Gregory wrote in a widely distributed pamphlet published in early 1848.

Gregory not only presented the problem – he also offered a solution: to educate women so that they could become “female physicians for their own sex.’’

And so Gregory founded Boston Female Medical College, the country’s first medical school for women, 167 years ago this week.

The school opened in early November 1848 with just “two lecturers and 12 pupils,’’ according to historical accounts. Students paid $25 in tuition. Room and board cost $2 to $3 per week.

An advertisement published in the ‘Eastern Times,’ October 19, 1848
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In the years leading up to the school’s founding, Gregory made a name for himself with his controversial views on midwifery, which were published in a series of pamphlets and discussed in lectures held across the area.

Even before the school opened its doors, Gregory was criticized for entertaining the prospect of women being trained in the medical profession.

On September 10, 1847, The Boston Herald reported on a lecture held in Boston by Gregory. The Herald wrote that the audience was “a herd of human swine, such as might be expected to feed upon such kind of garbage.’’

If that weren’t enough to get the point across, the Herald went on, and on, and on.

“It was long-winded, monotonous, vulgar, stupid, weak, and disgusting, without even the merit of wit, boldness or force, to enliven and relieve it — a mere mess of stagnant filth. The audience numbered about two hundred persons, and was composed, chiefly, of the lower classes, coarse, vulgar looking men … gluttonous pork eaters and beer swillers, mere animals.’’

The medical community was somewhat less harsh but still largely unsupportive of the school, which was later renamed New England Female Medical College.

In a letter published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in February 1849, one physician wrote in horror that “all civilized nations … regard the professions of law, medicine and divinity as masculine duties’’ and that “woman was obviously designed to move in another sphere.’’

The cover of “Man-Midwifery Exposed and Corrected’’, a pamphlet written by Gregory and published in early 1848.
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In the years that followed, Gregory encountered obstacle after obstacle. While Harvard Medical School’s male students had access to train in the city’s hospital wards, the female medical students at Boston Female Medical College were barred from training even within female patient wards.

The school also had a difficult time hiring lecturers. In 1866, Gregory wrote that most in the medical profession “do not deem it expedient to subject themselves to the professional discomfort and injury which a connection with the institution … would bring upon them.’’

In 1866, Gregory compared the opposition to the school with opposition once faced by William Harvey, a London physician whose discovery of the circulation of blood made him the victim of what Gregory described as “deep-rooted professional prejudices.’’

Before Harvey’s discovery, physicians thought blood was “continually formed anew from the digested food … and considered that the primary function of the heart was the production of heat.’’

Gregory understood the long game, writing: “Physicians all believe in the circulation of the blood now; and at some future time they will believe in women as a useful and important part of the medical profession.’’

Despite being responsible for launching the country’s first medical school for women, Gregory was not a feminist. He is said to have outspokenly opposed women’s suffrage. He was also vocal about his opposition to female masturbation. In a pamphlet he published in 1847, Gregory described case upon case where “the secret and fatal habit’’ had resulted in mania, sickness, and even death.

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Gregory died in 1872. A year later, New England Female Medical College was merged into Boston University, becoming the Boston University School of Medicine.

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