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Frances H. Stewart – Oral History Transcription

William R. Massa, Jr. interviewed Frances H. Stewart as part of the Washington University School of Medicine’s Oral History Program. The interview was conducted on May 17, 1977. Dr. Stewart was instrumental in establishing the first Planned Parenthood Center in St. Louis. She was also a clinical instructor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Washington University School of Medicine. This interview was conducted on the occasion of her 50th medical school class reunion.

WILLIAM MASSA: Dr. Stewart, would you tell me about your early childhood and your family life? Did you have any brothers or sisters who were interested in medicine or were there any other relatives who got you interested in medicine?

DR. FRANCES STEWART: Yes, my stepfather was a doctor, here in St. Louis. He was in general practice. When I first started out to go to college I thought I would be interested in bacteriology. One of my father’s friends, I think, got me talking about that. When I went to college, because of the fact that I said I was interested in majoring in bacteriology I was given an advisor in the anatomy department. That has been a while back and I do not remember his name. He had a Ph.D., but it was the great regret of his life that instead of getting a Ph.D., he should have had an M.D. because he had lost out on several things. One of them was that he almost was named dean of the medical school at the University of Wisconsin but somebody with a M.D. got it instead. So whenever he got hold of anybody like me, who was going to do something with the medical field, or at least thought we would, he said, “Register as a pre-medical student, you will never regret it.” He was right. I would rather be a doctor than a bacteriologist. I think one thing you wanted to know is how I happened to go to medical school here. Is that correct?

MASSA: Yes, and why you went to the University of Wisconsin when you were from St. Louis and came back here to medical school.

STEWART: I really don’t remember. My parents had friends who had children there. I don’t really know – I had never been away from home; we all felt it was a good idea. But when it came time to go to medical school, this was my home, this was a good medical school – an excellent one – and there wasn’t any reason for trying to go any place else.

MASSA: During your education here at Washington University Medical School, can you remember any of the professors who had a profound influence on you? There must have been lots of them. But can you single out a few?

STEWART: I will never forget to my dying day Dr. Ernest Sachs, who was a neurosurgeon. Not that I was interested in that field, but he was one of the best teachers that any medical student ever had. Anything he brought to your attention, you never forgot. In our junior year, we had a weekly meeting that we called our Noon Clinic, which was in the old operating room amphitheater. He would bring a patient in, get her down there in the bottom [of the amphitheater], and get a couple of students down and say, “What do you see?” And you’d better tell him what you saw. That sort of thing that was an entirely different approach and I think we all learned a lot from him. He was a firebrand, with an awful temper, but he was a wonderful teacher. He was one of the best teachers I ever had.

MASSA: At the time you were a medical student not many women were going to medical school. Did you feel that you were under any special or unusual pressure because you were female? Did you feel that you were treated equally by the professors as compared with the male students, and did the male students treat you differently?

STEWART: Nobody could have had any better treatment from anybody. I was treated like the rest of my class members were treated by everybody, by the students and the staff. I have no patience with some of these women with whom I have had contact who walk around with chips on their shoulders. I never had any problems.

MASSA: Do you think the fact that you didn’t have any problems might have been because some of the prominent faculty members included women here, like Dr. Helen Graham, or Dr. Mildred Trotter?

STEWART: Well, there’s no question that they were used to women on the faculty. But I don’t know that that part of it had anything to do with it. As far as I was concerned, and the rest of the women in the class, we were treated just as the rest of them were. I never felt that there was any prejudice against me and I also never felt that I had any favors bestowed on me.

MASSA: Do you see any significant differences in the way medicine is taught today as opposed to the approach that was taken when you were a student?

STEWART: Definitely more is demanded of the students. There are so many changes and so much progress has been made over the years, I think it is twice as hard for medical students now as it was when I went to medical school. Of course, we thought we had a pretty hard time. I don’t think we had it the way they have it now. There is so much more, everything is so much more involved than it used to be.

MASSA: So much more reading to do?

STEWART: More of everything.

MASSA: After you graduated from the Medical School where did you take your internship?

STEWART: I spent my first year here at St. Louis Maternity Hospital, and then I went to Detroit. I interned in OB/GYN there and then the following year I had a residency in OB/GYN in Detroit.

MASSA: Could you describe a little bit about those experiences as an intern and also as a resident?

STEWART: In what way do you mean? I can tell you things about my first year as an intern. We thought we never got out of that hospital, ever. They don’t work like that now. They think they do, but they don’t. It was the most rewarding experience. You were expected to work and you did it. The more you worked, the more you learned.

MASSA: Now is that at the St. Louis Maternity Hospital?

STEWART: That was every place, but particularly here at Maternity. I worked harder there than I did when I was in the hospital in Detroit, but everybody else did, too. You will never get any place if you don’t work hard.

MASSA: Did you encounter any difficulty in having a hospital accept you because you were a woman? I guess not so much, since you were going into OB/GYN.

STEWART: Yes and no. I’ll tell you what I mean by that. I knew before the internships were passed out that I was going to be an intern at Maternity because I was told by Dr. (William J.) Dieckmann, “If you want to come here, you’ve got it.” I applied also at Jewish Hospital for an internship; I didn’t want it, but a friend of my father’s was a surgeon on the staff there and he wanted me to apply. They had their new hospital then, in its present location. They were formerly on Delmar, west of Union, and they had moved into their new hospital not too long before that. He didn’t see any reason why they didn’t have any women interns, and they didn’t have any. So he asked me, as a favor to him, to apply. He said, “You are not going to get it. I know the people on the intern committee and they are not going to let any women in there, but please do it.” So I did and my answer was, “We have no facilities or quarters for women interns.” Well, I didn’t apply any place else; I went to Detroit. I hadn’t applied any place else except that hospital.

MASSA: Why did you leave St. Louis to go to Detroit?

STEWART: At that time, I didn’t think the opportunity was good enough for me to stay here. Things are different now than they were then. However, Dr. Schwarz [ed. note: this could be either Henry Schwarz or his son, Otto Schwarz] told me that I could stay if I wanted to, but I decided I could further myself a little better if I left.

MASSA: After you served your residency in Detroit, did you come back to St. Louis to start your practice?


MASSA: I understand that you were involved in setting up St. Louis’s first contraceptive clinic. When was that and were other people involved?

STEWART: I was involved to a certain extent, but I was not involved the way other people were. This thing started with Dr. Fred Taussig and Dr. Robert Crossen. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was very early in 1932, and I remember that I was called by Dr. Taussig and asked to come to this meeting. They were just starting to talk about it. I went to two or three meetings at his home. He was there and Mrs. Butts [?], who was the social worker and later to be the executive director of the clinic when it opened was there, and Dr. Crossen. There were a couple of other people whose names I don’t remember. This thing was talked about and it was a hope that something like this could be started. It was followed up with more meetings and getting more people interested, and the clinic finally opened August 1, 1933. They had their first board meeting, which I was not a member of, in 1932, but at that time I was doing what we called our Maternal Health Clinic at the medical school and that is why they got me involved.

When the clinic first opened they had one session a week and Dr. Crossen did that. By February 1933 there were three clinics a week and I worked one of them, Dr. Crossen worked one of them, and Dr. Lesley Patton, who has been gone many a day, worked that, too. Then they finally stopped it. They thought it was best for them to get it started in the beginning. Then I did a couple of clinics a week and they gradually brought in other doctors over a period of time.

MASSA: What was the name of the clinic when it started out?

STEWART: When it started it was the Maternal Health Association of Missouri and it was about 1943 that it was changed to the Planned Parenthood Clinic of Missouri. Shortly after that, the name was changed to the Planned Parenthood Clinic of St. Louis. That is the current name. It is affiliated with the national Planned Parenthood Association.

MASSA: Was this clinic a neighborhood clinic or was it set up to serve the whole city of St. Louis?

STEWART: It was set up to serve the whole city of St. Louis and the first clinic that was opened was in a second floor flat on Euclid Avenue, right near McPherson. They had three rooms. The patients were accepted only on a referral basis from the social agency or a physician and they must be white, married women. Later, they conferred with the Urban League and some other social agency and decided they would accept colored women, now we say “black” women, and everybody had to be married. It was some years before they began to accept unmarried women. If they had had a child, if they were a mother, they would accept an unmarried woman. Finally, any woman who had a child whether she was married or unmarried, it didn’t make any difference. Then they changed it so that anybody, even unmarried women who didn’t have a child, could be accepted.

MASSA: Could you describe a little bit about these sessions? You said you had three a week or something like that. Were they one-on-one, with you talking to the person coming in?

STEWART: Yes, the doctor saw the patients individually. We had the social worker, at first it was just Mrs. Butts. Over the years, of course, they added more staff. The patient was interviewed and the history taken by the social worker and she was talked to for some time. The purpose of her visit there was [discussed.] “Why did you come?, What do you expect out of this?”, and she had quite a counseling session. Then the patient was seen by the doctor for her examination and whatever birth control method being given to her was explained to her by the physician, always. Most of them at that time were using diaphragms.


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