Health Professions

The Path to Medical Coeducation in the United States

Hundreds of American women sought medical training in the decades following Elizabeth Blackwell’s graduation from Geneva Medical College in 1849. Female pioneers founded several “regular” and sectarian women’s medical colleges. They built dispensaries and hospitals to provide clinical training for female graduates. By the end of the nineteenth century, female physicians numbered between 4 and 5% of the profession, a figure that remained relatively stable until the 1960s.

Between 1850 and 1895, 19 medical colleges for women had been established. By 1900, 11 of them had disbanded. By 1910, only 2 remained – the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania and a homeopathic medical school in New York. The late 19th century was an era before standardization and accreditation and many medical schools opened and closed within a matter of years, often due to financial constraints.

The longest unbroken record for training women physicians is held by the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was the first medical school for women. The college opened its doors in 1850 and did not admit men until 1970, when it changed its name to the Medical College of Pennsylvania. The school is now known as MCP Hahnemann University and is operated by Drexel University.

The Boston Female Medical College was founded in 1848 as a school for midwives and graduated its first class of 12 women in 1850. Renamed the New England Female Medical College, the school was expanded in 1856 to include a full medical curriculum. In 1873 the college affiliated with Boston University and adapted a homeopathic medicine curriculum. Though co-educational, the Boston University School of Medicine continued its precursor’s commitment to educating women with a large percentage of female students. In 1893 more than 30% of its students were women.

In New York Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell started the New York Infirmary for Women in 1853 and 15 years later, in 1868 added the Medical College of the New York Infirmary. The Medical College, which had graduated 364 female physicians, closed in 1899 when Cornell University promised to admit all the students attending the school. In 1870 in Chicago, the Woman’s Hospital Medical College was founded. In 1877 the School incorporated under the name Woman’s Medical College of Chicago. In 1892 the School merged with Northwestern University to become the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School, which remained in operation until 1902. The Woman’s Medical College of Baltimore was opened in 1892 and closed in 1909.

Co-educational opportunities became available in the 1870s. In 1870 the University of Michigan Department of Medicine and Surgery became coeducational, graduating its first woman, Amanda Sanford, in 1871. Swiss and German medical schools began accepting women in the 1870s, and many American women enrolled in these foreign schools. In the early 1890s Cornell University Medical College began accepting women. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine admitted women students from its opening in 1893. Of the twenty members in the original class, there were three women.

It was many years before all medical schools accepted women students. In 1904 there were 160 medical schools in the United States, of which 97 (61%) admitted women. In 1920 there were 85 medical schools, of which 64 (75%) were coeducational. By 1944 the only medical schools that did not admit women were Georgetown, Harvard, St. Louis University, Dartmouth, and Jefferson. Harvard University Medical School admitted its first 12 women as freshman in September 1945. St. Louis University and Georgetown University denied women admission until 1948. The last holdout was Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, which became co-educational in June 1960.