The purpose of our blog is to discuss topical issues, stories, and situations, as well as to share what we are up to and new ways for you to get involved. We are always searching for possible answers to the question: Why is a girl's worth culturally and historically relative?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Women's History Month "M": Maria Mitchell and Women in Medicine

MARIA MITCHELL

Maria Mitchell, painted by H. Dassel in 1851

Maria Mitchell was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts on August 1, 1818 to a Quaker family, who believed that both girls and boys should be equally educated.  After attending the North Grammar School, where her father, William Mitchell was principal, Maria's father went on to found his own school when Maria was 11.  Maria attended her father's school as a student, but also served as a teaching assistant.  In the evenings, Maria and her father studied the skies with their personal telescope; when she was 12, they calculated the precise moment of annular eclipse.  After completing her schooling, Maria served as a teaching assistant, opened her own school in 1835, and a year later, served as the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, a position she held for the next eighteen years.

Through her education, Maria became an astronomer, librarian, naturalist, and educator. She became America’s first professional female astronomer, and was best known for her discovery of a comet through a telescope in the fall of 1847, for which she was awarded a gold medal in 1848 by the King of Denmark.  Maria was the fist woman to join the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and later the first woman to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  She worked at the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office.  In 1865, Maria was the first person appointed to the faculty of Vassar College as professor of astronomy, and named Director of the school's observatory.  When she learned that her salary was lower than that of most of the younger male professors, she fought and won a salary increase.  In 1889, Maria died at the age of 70.  Her birth-house is open for visitation on Nantucket, Massachusetts.

QUOTES FOR THE DAY

We especially need imagination in science.  It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.
~Maria Mitchell

I would as soon put a girl alone into a closet to meditate as give her only the society of her needle.
~Maria Mitchell

Question everything.
~Maria Mitchell 

There is no cosmetic for beauty like happiness.
~Maria Mitchell

WOMEN IN MEDICINE

Throughout history, women have often been the first contact for medical advice and treatment.  They've nursed children, parents, and neighbors, and provided treatment and remedies through their own experiences and knowledge passed down to them.  Until relatively recent times, though, women were not allowed to formally study the medical sciences, and throughout history, very few women have served as physicians.  Even so, women have provided many paid medical services throughout history, including midwifery, nursing, minor surgery and treatments, and herbal remedies.

The earliest woman mentioned in medical science was Merit Ptah, an Egyptian who lived around 2700 BC and was described as a chief physician.  Homer mentioned Agamede, a healer in Greece, and in Athens, Agnodike was a legally practicing physician in the 4th century BC.  In medieval times, women were generally barred from universities, though there were few exceptions.  In general, Italy was more willing to educate women in the medical professions.  Trotula di Ruggiero supposedly taught at the Medical School of Salerno, and many texts dealing with female medical issues are attributed to her.  And at the University of Bologna, Dorotea Bucca was a chair of philosophy and medicine for over forty years.  Additionally, Hildegard of Bingen is generally accepted as Germany's first female physician, as she wrote extensively on a variety of scientific topics, including medicine.

It wasn't truly until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that women really began to gain access to formal medical training at universities.  Being banned from universities meant that several schools of medicine for women were founded, including the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850), the London School of Medicine for Women (1874), and the Tokyo Women's Medical University (1900).  Women also pushed for—and slowly began to receive—entry to medical schools alongside their male counterparts.  But even today, there are more men than women in medicine, and individual fields tend to be dominated by one gender or the other.  Men, for example, dominate the field of surgery, and also dominate as medical faculty and researchers.  Women, on the other hand, are more likely than men to practice in the fields of pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology, and psychiatry.  Additionally, women still dominate in the field of nursing.

For more information on women in medicine, please visit Science Museum's History of Women in Medicine.

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