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Mildred Trotter – Oral History Transcription

Dr. Estelle Brodman, librarian and professor of Medical History at the Washington University School of Medicine, interviewed Mildred Trotter as part of the School’s Oral History Program. The interview was recorded on May 19 and 23, 1972.

The written transcript of the interviews was edited in April 1985 by Paul G. Anderson. The Preface to the written transcript states that “This transcript combines two conversations between Mildred Trotter and Estelle Brodman recorded in May, 1972. The transcript has been edited to present events of Dr. Trotter’s life in chronological order. Emendations of Dr. Trotter’s remarks are indicated by words or passages enclosed in brackets. The original tapes and transcripts are preserved in the Washington University School of Medicine Archives.”

Dr. Estelle Brodman: It is very kind of you and good for the history of science that you have agreed to this interview. I am also pleased because it gives me the chance to ask you embarrassing questions, none of which are my business, but ones which I have always wanted to ask. For instance, you were one of the first women in anatomy. How come you decided to go into this field?

Dr. Mildred Trotter: Oh, that’s very easy. At the end of [my undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke] College, I expected to earn my own living and was spending my summer looking for a good teaching position in the public schools. I was about to sign on the dotted line when a letter came from Dr. C. H. Danforth asking me to come [to Washington University] as a research assistant. He went on to say that one of my teachers at Mount Holyoke had suggested that I might be interested in coming to help him, that he had recently had a five thousand dollar grant assigned to him by the dean for the study of hair. This money had been given to the Medical School, through Dr. Martin F. Engman, Sr. The husband of one of Engman’s patients, who had been treated for hypertrichosis, had daughters who were also beginning to have hypertrichosis. The man decided it would be a good idea to have somebody to study hair growth, although he knew that it wouldn’t help his family.

Brodman: What in your college courses led you to study zoology?

Trotter: Mount Holyoke has always been strong in that field. One of the earliest people was Dr. Cornelia Clapp, who was head of the department and who had studied with [Louis] Agassiz.

Brodman: That is unusual.

Trotter: However, she wasn’t active when I went to Mount Holyoke in 1916. She had been succeeded as the head of the department by Dr. Ann Morgan; there were two other academically strong women in the department then, Drs. A. Elizabeth Adams and Christianna Smith. Of these Dr. Smith is the only one still living.

Brodman: You have mentioned to me previously that you came from a farm. I assume that your family still lives there.

Trotter: I come from a long line of farmers, [including] my grandfather, my father, my brother, and now my nephew. But the original family farm was bought by the government in the early forties, and another one was acquired before my father died in 1943.

Brodman: Wasn’t it unusual in the turn of the century for a farm family to send a daughter to college?

Trotter: I don’t think so.

Brodman: Well, tell me something about your farm life.

Trotter: I think it is one of the most wonderful backgrounds anyone can have. It introduces one to zoology at an early age, and wide open spaces are conducive to a certain openness of character and mind. Of course, a farm is not a place in which one can make a lot of money, and, I suppose, that too is a good preparation for an academic life.

Brodman: What crops did your family raise?

Trotter: We had in a sense a truck garden farm, although my grandfather’s chief crop was potatoes and my father’s was corn. My brother [specialized in dairy farming] and now my nephew continues in this line.

Brodman: You have informed me that the farm is near Monaca, Pennsylvania. I am trying to find Monaca on the map. I understand that it is located between Pittsburgh and Newcastle.

Trotter: It may not be on your map. Can you find Beaver Falls?

Brodman: Yes, here is Beaver Falls.

Trotter: I went to high school in Beaver Falls. I crossed the river at Vanport, and went to Beaver Falls by streetcar. Here’s Monaca.

Brodman: Is that pretty hilly country?

Trotter: Yes, it is.

Brodman: So, you came to Washington University to work on a specially funded research project?

Trotter: That is right. My parents thought I was unwise because the position paid only a thousand dollars, and the high school teaching job I had been offered in Pennsylvania, $1,600. But I wrote to ask Dr. Danforth if any of the work could be credited towards a master’s degree. [His reply was that] he didn’t know; I would have to write to the Board of Graduate Studies [at Washington University]. I wrote to the Board of Graduate Studies and their answer was yes. So, after I got here and knew Dr. Danforth a little, I said, “Why didn’t you tell me that I would get credit for the work?” He replied, “I wanted to see how much gumption you had.” That certainly was not unusual in the twenties.

Brodman: When you joined the Washington University Department of Anatomy, did the medical students object to having a woman in the dissection room? Or didn’t you teach there for some time?

Trotter: I taught in the dissection room the third year I was here. [As for objections, what you asked connotes] a slight exaggeration. I dissected for demonstrations in my third year, and Dr. Vernon Mastin did the demonstrating. He was the only one who made it difficult for me.

Brodman: In what way did he make it difficult?

Trotter: He raised Cain about the first demonstration, because I hadn’t succeeded in finding four branches of the deep femoral artery which pass to the dorsal region of the thigh – my cadaver had only two. This taught me a lesson: for the next demonstration I had Dr. Terry [the chief of the department] come in and check my dissection.

Brodman: Then I take it you had no trouble with the students. You perhaps had trouble with the faculty as a woman.

Trotter: There wasn’t much trouble with faculty either. Dr. Mastin wasn’t a member of the full-time staff; I think he came only on Fridays. He had come from the Mayo Clinic and was an M.D. But he had written a master’s thesis on the blood supply of the thyroid, so I guess he had some graduate experience in anatomy. He was a surgeon and probably wanted to have a toe-hold in anatomy.

Brodman: You have indicated to me that you have known several chairman of the Department of Anatomy, each of whom was very different. You used the analogy of hats to explain their differences.

Trotter: I won’t extend to my present chief, [Dr. Maxwell Cowan]. But my first chief, Dr. Robert J. Terry, told us what type and color of hat to buy. My next chief, Dr. Edmund V. Cowdry, didn’t care about color and style as long as we had a hat. [My third chief, Dr. Edward W.] Dempsey, didn’t care whether we had a hat or not. I think that this is a trend of the times. We’ve gone from a formal sort of academic life to one less formal.

Brodman: I wonder if you would tell us something about Dr. Terry.

Trotter: I really couldn’t talk about him. He seemed to be a very formidable man but he had the kindest feelings for everybody.

Brodman: It sounds a little bit as if Dr. Terry were, although kind, a little authoritarian in his view. Is that true?

Trotter: I think he probably was, a little. But why not, especially in his own department? Dr. Terry was chairman of the department from 1900 until his retirement in 1941. He was the only head of a department who was re-appointed in 1910 after the reorganization [of the medical school] resulting from the Flexner Report. He had a hard row because of this you see, the other powers in the medical school had been brought here after the reorganization. How [the new department chiefs] looked on him I don’t know, but, I felt, there wasn’t the same closeness between him and the others. Dr. Terry had a very good academic background and at one time had had an opportunity to join the anatomy staff at Harvard. One of his sons, Robert Jr., considered writing about what might have happened if he had gone to Harvard. I don’t know whether Robert ever did that, but I thought it was a cute thing for him to think about.

Brodman: Why then do you think the new department chairmen, Joseph Erlanger, Philip Shaffer, and the rest, looked down a little on him?

Trotter: I don’t know that they looked down on him. You know, a foreigner often has a little strange feeling in a new environment. Don’t you think so?

Brodman: Yes, I suppose, but I would think that they would have thought well of somebody who was as good as Dr. Terry.

Trotter: They did think well of him.

Brodman: And yet they didn’t take him to their bosom.

Trotter: That’s often the case. One may be respected, but not liked. [But Dr. Terry] took them to his bosom. If one of them was in the hospital he always dashed over with a book, or with something.

Brodman: And yet you say he had a hard row. What do you mean by that?

Trotter: Just because he was in the outer circle, not the inner circle. He was a loner. He had to be a loner.

Brodman: Was this because the other chairmen wouldn’t admit him to the inner circle?

Trotter: I don’t know.

Brodman: Dr. Terry studied at the University of Edinburgh. I remember that our Washington University School of Medicine Archives contains a letter, in the Aaron J. Steele papers, I believe, about his life there. How long was he at Edinburgh?

Trotter: I don’t know for sure. I think for a year, but that was before 1900. Early in this century, 1903 perhaps, he worked [at the University of] Freiburg [in Germany]. He was at the Missouri Medical College from 1895 and continued after it united with the Medical Department of Washington University to form the Washington University School of Medicine in 1899.


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