LITS Exhibition Highlights Women Physicians

Posted: August 2, 2006

Since the mid-1800s, when Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in America to earn an M.D., women have made enormous strides in every area of medicine and have achieved success in work once considered "unsuitable" for them. Women physicians are now found in every branch of medicine, as researchers, educators, surgeons, family practitioners, specialists, and government officials. These women doctors are the focus of a new traveling exhibition opening at Mount Holyoke's Williston Library on September 1. Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians tells the extraordinary story of how American women who wanted to practice medicine have struggled over the past two centuries to gain access to medical education and to work in the medical specialty they chose.

The exhibition, which runs September 1-30, features the life stories of a rich diversity of women physicians from around the nation--including notable Mount Holyoke alumnae--and highlights the broad range of medical specialties women are involved in today.

"Hosting this exhibition at Mount Holyoke allows our institution, devoted to the cause of educating women who improve the health of the world physically, spiritually, and economically, to lead the discussion on the history of women in medicine to the broader world," said Jennifer Gunter King, director of Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke and coordinator of the exhibition. "The story of women and medicine should be an inspirational one for everyone."

Mount Holyoke, with its enduring history of educating women in the sciences and consistency in producing pioneers in the fields of health care, medicine, and all sciences, has three alumnae featured in the exhibition: Virginia Apgar '29, a pioneer in the field of anesthesia who is most famous for the neonatal viability test used today and known as the Apgar Test; Dorothy Hansine Andersen '22, who was the first person to recognize cystic fibrosis as a disease and helped create a test to diagnose it; and Janet Mitchell '72, who runs the largest prenatal program for pregnant, drug-addicted women in New York City. Other pioneers featured in the exhibition are Matilda Evans, the first African American physician to be licensed in South Carolina, and Florence Sabin, one of the earliest woman physicians to work as a research scientist.

In conjunction with the exhibition, three Thursday evening programs in September will feature prominent women in medicine. The opening reception September 14 will feature Lori Arviso Alvord, associate dean of student and multicultural affairs at Dartmouth Medical School and author of The Scalpel and the Silver Bear. Alvord, the first Navajo woman to become a board certified surgeon, combines conventional Western medicine with traditional healing practices. On September 21, there will be an evening reception and talk by Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership at Harvard Medical School. Reede is the first African American woman to hold a position of that rank at Harvard Medical School and one of the few African American women to hold a deanship at a medical school in the United States. An alumnae panel and reception will be held September 28 titled "Mount Holyoke Women Changing the Face of Medicine" featuring alumnae in the medical field.

Archives librarian Patricia Albright is curating a small exhibition of documents, photographs, and objects from Archives and Special Collections that relate to the life and work of Apgar.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the American Library Association, Chicago, Illinois, organized the exhibition with support from the National Library of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health, and the American Medical Women's Association. The traveling exhibition is based on a larger exhibition that was displayed at the NLM from 2003 to 2005. Sponsors for the exhibition at Mount Holyoke include WFCR, 88.5 FM, NPR news and music for western New England, the Alumnae Association, and the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.

The exhibition also ties to the College's curriculum in several ways. Three courses were taught last spring using primary sources in Archives and Special Collections that document the unique role Mount Holyoke has played in educating women to be scientists as well as missionaries. Associate professor of chemistry Donald Cotter's Introduction to the History of Chemistry class used textbooks used by Mount Holyoke students in the nineteenth century as well as laboratory notebooks, research materials, and other personal papers of students and alumnae. Students in Mapping the Memorable: A Cultural and Environmental History of Mount Holyoke College and Its Campus, taught by E. Nevius Rodman Professor of History Robert Schwartz, explored sources relating to the work of alumnae missionaries in Africa, China, Hawaii, India, and elsewhere. Missionaries were often engaged in medical work in an unofficial capacity since women were not credentialed. And Eleanor Townsley, associate professor of sociology, had students in her Practicing Sociology class use documents, publications, and photographs in the library's collections as a way of understanding the archival and field methods used in sociology to explore issues in research design for nonquantitative data.

Through a College grant, funding was made available for several local middle and high school students to attend the exhibition, who will be led by Mount Holyoke prehealth student volunteers.

Related Links:

MHC's Virgina Apgar Featured in Sept. 28 Talk

Harvard Med School Dean Discusses Diversity

Apgar Scores! Papers Added to National Site

Changing the Face of Medicine