The Archives for Women in Medicine Project


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A Presentation prepared for the International Symposium of The Commission on the History of Women in Science, Technology, and Medicine.

Session: “The Impact of New Archival Projects: U.S. Archives for Women in Science and Engineering in the Late 20th and Early 21st centuries”

Thursday, 15 September 2011

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  • Hello, my name is Jessica Sedgwick, and I'm the Project Archivist for the Archives for Women in Medicine at Harvard Medical School. I want to thank you all for inviting me to be a part of this exciting symposium - it's an honor to be here, and to have the opportunity to tell you about our project and some of it's outcomes. This century has witnessed enormous changes in the representation of women in the medical field. In 1960, 5% of U.S. medical students were women; by 2006, women comprised half of all medical students and 15% of full professors.
  • But women's entrance into the medical field was a long and rocky process, and this was particularly true at Harvard. I'm going to give you a little background on the relatively short history of women at Harvard Medical School, just to provide some context for the project.
  • As part of the wider movement for women's rights during the mid-1800s, women campaigned for admission to medical schools and the opportunity to learn and work alongside men in the professions. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to achieve a medical degree in the United States.
  • In 1847, Harriot Hunt wrote to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Dean of Harvard Medical School, asking permission to attend medical lectures. Despite having practiced in Boston since 1835 as a physician (though without an MD) she expressed doubts that she would succeed in being admitted – and she wasn’t.
  • In 1850, Hunt again applied to HMS. The medical faculty voted five to two that she be admitted. But before she can attend her first lecture, the medical students meet to protest her admission, and the faculty persuade her to withdraw.
  • In 1867, Sophia Jex-Blake and Susan Dimmock, students at New England Hospital, request admission to Harvard. Their application is turned down by a vote of seven to one. They persist and reapply in 1868, but were again denied. Over the years, many others tried and were rejected, until, nearly 100 years later.....
  • Harvard admitted its first class of women, in 1945. Even then, this class was only accepted as part of a 10-year trial to see whether women would be productive and successful during and after medical school. They passed the trial.
  • Today, women at Harvard continue to reach new levels of achievement in medicine and science. Since 2000, for example, the number of women full professors at the medical school has more than doubled, with eighty appointees in the last decade alone. And yet, despite this enormous shift, women have been woefully under-represented in the manuscript holdings of Harvard's Center for the History of Medicine.
  • The Center holds one of the largest collections of medical rare books, objects, archives, and manuscripts in the United States. In 1999, the medical school's Joint Committee on the Status of Women surveyed the Center’s faculty collections of personal and professional papers, revealing that out of 900 such collections, fewer than 20 were created by women, and only one of these was processed and accessible for research. The evidence of women’s contributions to Harvard medicine was largely missing.
  • The Archives for Women in Medicine project is bridging this gap in documentation by collecting, preparing for access, and promoting the personal and professional papers of outstanding women in Harvard medicine. In particular, we want to document the social phenomenon that brought women to the forefront of their careers here.
  • To ensure that this phenomenon is captured, it is essential for us to build our collections. Since the outset of the project, we have acquired 7 new collections from women pioneers at Harvard, many of whom represent the first and second generations of women professors at the medical school.
  • Some of the faculty members we've worked with have told us that acceptance of women in a field is like a crack in a dam– once one drop has seeped through, then the opening is widened enough to allow 3 more drops, and then 10 and then 100. Anecdotally, this is the result of communities of influence. And we're trying to collect this, because unless such collections are brought together and made accessible, these spheres of influence and communities of support can’t be seen. If an archive collects only the “star” in a community, evidence of mutual support, mentoring, and admiration, could remain invisible.
  • I'd like to highlight the story of just one of the relationships documented across AWM collections. Lydia Dawes and Grete Bibring were early pioneers in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which, like child and maternal health, was one of the fields that was much more receptive to women’s entry in the 1930s through the 1960s. Both were friends and colleagues with Anna Freud. All three are in this picture, and I'll give you just a short bio of each.
  • This is Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, famous psychoanalyst, scholar, and activist, pictured here at the First Stockbridge congress on Child analysis in 1950. She is the “star.”
  • A student of Freud’s and a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Grete Bibring fled Vienna with the Freuds after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. She soon settled in Boston and worked at the Simmons School of Social Work and at Harvard Medical School. In 1946, she was appointed chief of psychiatry at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital, and in 1961 she became the first women physician to achieve the rank of full professor at Harvard Medical School. Called the “doyenne of the Boston psychiatric community,” Bibring was president of the American Psychoanalytic Association and vice president of the International Psycho- Analytical Association.
  • Lydia Gibson Dawes was the first child analyst and child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital, Boston. She graduated from the Yale School of Medicine in 1929, studied in Vienna in the 1930s, and completed her analysis training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.
  • I can describe to you what these women were like, tell you about the culture around them, but the documents do a much better job. This is a letter written from Anna Freud to Lydia Dawes in 1937: “ I do hope you will succeed in convincing Dr. Ruggles that he ought to give you a salary. One feels so much more settled and part of an institution in a paid position, even if the money itself is not very much.”
  • “ Dear Dr. Dawes. I am very impressed by the case of hysteria and delighted that you have written it. I always expected you to become a first class analyst, but now I know that you are. I am very glad. Yours sincerely, Anna Freud.”
  • And for a little societal background, here is an article we found in the Bibring collection: “ Stethescope Sorority’s growing fast” says the Boston Post, May 10 th , 1956. “ The Doctor is a lady! Nothing strange about it, either. Not after the first shock, when the white-capped surgeon turns out to be a living doll with slight Jane Russel overtones. Women in white have long pioneered in pediatrics and psychology. There are more masked beauties than ever before in the operating room, all with ‘anesthesiologist’ after their names. Even the doctor who’s urgently wanted in surgery in the best Dr. Kildare tradition, is likely to wear skirts.”
  • This is a letter from Anna Freud to Grete Bibring, inviting her to come to the “Far End”, Freud and Dorothy Burlingham’s house. “ What about coming to the Far End after the Congress instead of driving through Scotland? … You know the situation, there is plenty of room in the house in the day-time, and I have the analytic hours only in the afternoon. Would you mind? We could have a very nice time all together, play “girls boarding school” and have all the discussions which we want. Do say yes?”
  • And the reply: “ I would simply love to come to the Far End and I have to admit I was a little uncertain about this Scotland trip (and then later) I am so sorry we all have to get old. As far as the girls’ boarding school is concerned, I am delighted, if you let me help cook. “ So, in a span of 30 years, you can tell that these women were each other’s colleagues, friends, and supporters. And because much of this correspondence is not from the famous person-- the “star”, then without these materials, the evidence of Anna Freud using her considerable fame and influence to help these women might not exist.
  • Access is critical to the mission of the Archives for Women in Medicine. Our collections have value only insofar as they are available, discoverable, and accessible. Since the start of the project, we have opened 20 new collections, with many more currently in queue for archival processing. All processed collections are described in an online finding aid, which is indexed for search engine discovery. This is a screenshot of one of our finding aids. Even our unprocessed collections are cataloged online, to let researchers know they exist. And I should note- researcher requests for unprocessed collections do inform how we prioritize our processing queue.
  • In addition to personal and professional papers, another key component of our holdings is our oral history collection. Over the last few years, we have digitized 9 legacy oral history interviews with some of Harvard Medical School's earliest women professors, and we have more recently worked with the Joint Committee on the Status of Women to record 6 new oral histories, which are also available online Here is a clip I’d share with you from a 1982 interview with Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, the first female chief of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital Boston.
  • To put Dr. Avery's comments into perspective, 9 years after this interview was filmed, she was awarded the national medal of science for a discovery she made in 1959, 32 years prior. Avery's discovery – that the lack of a foamy fluid called surfactant was the cause of Respiratory Distress Syndrome in premature infants, lead to a successful treatment which, within 25 years, reduced the number of babies in the US who died from RDS from over 10,000 a year to 1400.
  • In addition to making our oral histories available online, we are working to digitize more of our manuscript holdings for easier access. It has been our practice to digitize selected items from most collections as they are processed, and we are currently exploring technologies that would allow us to offer more robust online exhibits.
  • The third goal I'd like to talk about is Outreach. Promoting these collections and celebrating the women pioneers they document is central to our mission. We are striving to create a community of scholars, scientists, historians, archivists, and students who are interested in using the tools of the past to influence the future. We have developed a suite of outreach mechanisms for accomplishing this goal, including printed promotional materials, an online newsletter and blog, special events and exhibits, and fellowships to support research.
  • For the past four years, we've partnered with the Philadelphia-based Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine to offer an annual fellowship to support research utilizing AWM collections. These fellowships have brought in researchers from across the United States and abroad, producing research on topics like women and colonial medicine, early birth control research, and the influx of educated male physicians into the traditionally female profession of midwifery in Britain. This year’s fellowship was awarded to Dr. Hilary Aquino , whose project is titled: Dr. Leona Baumgartner: Crusader for the Public’s Health. Utilizing our newly opened Leona Baumgartner Papers, Aquino will examine the ways in which Baumgartner shaped the direction and focus of the New York City Department of Health as Director of the Bureau of Child Health and Assistant Commissioner of Maternal and Child Health Services, eventually becoming the first female Commissioner of the entire department. Dr. Aquino will explore Baumgartner’s views on improving the access to and quality of medical care for urban minorities, specifically women and children.
  • In addition to promoting the collections by supporting historical research, we are working to raise the visibility of the project within the Harvard Medical Community, as well as educate this community about the women who have shaped it. To this end, for the past two years we've been holding a series of events in Harvard-affiliated hospitals. Harvard differs from many American medical schools in that it has faculty in not just one teaching hospital, but in many different affiliated hospitals across Boston. So we've gone to many of these hospitals and held an event that celebrates their earliest women leaders, with a focus on the legacy and impact they had on that specific community. Let me give you an example.
  • In 2010, we held an event at Massachusetts General Hospital called “Women in Medicine: Three generations at MGH.” This event honored Mass General's earliest woman professor, the late Dr. Janet McArthur. We screened an oral history video clip of Dr. McArthur at the event, and heard talks from not one but two succeeding generations of women scientists at the Mass General.
  • Dr. Patricia Donahoe,Chief Emerita of Pediatric Surgical Services, spoke about training under Dr. McArthur. Then one of Donahoe's former trainees, Dr. Annekathryn Goodman, talked about the importance of her relationship with her mentor. She had this to say about working with Donahoe: “ I do not know what barriers Dr Donahoe faced because she is humble about breaking through glass ceilings. I can only guess at the struggles of proving herself as a woman surgeon. But because of her, I have only had to prove myself as a surgeon.”:
  • In some ways, these events are the heart and soul of the Archives for Women in Medicine project, because they've allowed us to build and engage a community of doctors, researchers, students, and scholars who care about preserving and sharing the story of women's contributions to medicine and science.
  • Our ultimate goal is to document the people—the pioneers and leaders, the mentors and role models—who have shaped the Harvard medical community into one that recognizes achievement regardless of gender. Their words and ideas, revealed in correspondence, oral histories, lectures, research, and writings, inform our understanding of the evolution of medicine. Thank you!
  • The Archives for Women in Medicine Project

    1. 1. The Archives for Women in Medicine Jessica Sedgwick, Project Archivist [email_address] Prepared for the International Symposium of The Commission on the History of Women in Science, Technology, and Medicine Thursday, 15 September 2011 American Medical Women’s Association pamphlet, 1960s.
    2. 2. History of women at Harvard Medical School Dr. William T. Porter’s physiology class, dental section, ca. 1905. From the Harvard Medical Library in the Countway Library of Medicine.
    3. 3. Women in Medicine in the U.S. 1849 Present National Library of Medicine Schlesinger Library Elizabeth Blackwell
    4. 4. History of Women at Harvard Medical School Susan Dimock Harriot Kezia Hunt 1849 Present 1847 Sophia Jex-Blake
    5. 5. History of Women at Harvard Medical School Susan Dimock Harriot Kezia Hunt 1849 Present 1847 1850 Sophia Jex-Blake
    6. 6. History of Women at Harvard Medical School Susan Dimock Harriot Kezia Hunt 1849 Present 1847 1850 1867 Sophia Jex-Blake
    7. 7. History of women at Harvard Medical School First class of women at Harvard Medical School, 1949. 1945 1849 Present
    8. 8. History of women at Harvard Medical School Five of HMS's earliest women professors: Elizabeth Hay, MD, Mary Ellen Avery, M.D., Alice Huang, PhD, Lynne Reid, MD, and Priscilla Schaffer, PhD
    9. 9. The Center for the History of Medicine <ul><li>In 1999: </li></ul><ul><li>900 total faculty collections </li></ul><ul><li>Less than 20 by women </li></ul><ul><li>Only 1 open for research </li></ul>
    10. 10. The Archives for Women in Medicine Project (AWM) <ul><li>Goals </li></ul><ul><li>Collecting: Build a resource with enduring value </li></ul><ul><li>Access: Process collections for research access </li></ul><ul><li>Outreach: Promote collections and celebrate women leaders </li></ul>Medical students at an Archives for Women in Medicine event in 2008
    11. 11. Collecting <ul><li>Lynne M. Reid, M.D., M.B.,B.S., (left) S. Burt Wolbach Distinguished Professor of Pathology, Children’s Hospital </li></ul><ul><li>Patricia K. Donahoe, M.D. (right), Marshall K. Bartlett Professor of Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital. </li></ul>
    12. 12. Collecting From the Mary Ellen Avery Papers
    13. 13. Collecting: Communities of influence Anna Freud Grete Bibring Lydia Dawes The First Stockbridge Congress on Child Analysis, 1950 From the Lydia M. Gibson Dawes Papers
    14. 14. Anna Freud From the Lydia M. Gibson Dawes Papers Collecting: Communities of influence
    15. 15. Grete Bibring From the Grete Bibring Papers Collecting: Communities of influence
    16. 16. Collecting: Communities of influence Lydia M. Gibson Dawes From the Lydia M. Gibson Dawes Collection Lydia M. Gibson Dawes Papers
    17. 17. Collecting: Communities of influence 1937
    18. 18. Collecting: Communities of influence 1952
    19. 19. Collecting: Communities of influence 1956
    20. 20. 1961 Collecting: Communities of influence
    21. 21. Collecting: Communities of influence 1961
    22. 22. Access: Discovery
    23. 23. Access: Oral history project
    24. 24. Access: Oral history project Download the oral history interview with Mary Ellen Avery at:
    25. 25. Access: Digitization initiatives
    26. 26. Outreach
    27. 27. Outreach: Research Fellowships Hilary Aquino, Ph.D. Dr. Leona Baumgartner: Crusader for the Public’s Health Joane Marie Johnson, Ph.D. Women Funding Women: Philanthropy, Power, and Feminism from 1880 to the Present Narin Haasan, Ph.D. Foreign Bodies: Women, Travel and the Culture of Colonial Medicine
    28. 28. Outreach: Events
    29. 29. Outreach: Events
    30. 30. Outreach: Events Patricia K. Donahoe, M.D.
    31. 31. Outreach: Events
    32. 32. The Archives for Women in Medicine Jessica Sedgwick, Project Archivist [email_address] Prepared for the International Symposium of The Commission on the History of Women in Science, Technology, and Medicine Thursday, 15 September 2011