In our post on medical philately we made reference to Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in America, an 1849 graduate of Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. She was soon followed by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in the United Kingdom. Both are remarkable women, but we wanted to reach back further to find the first in the world.
Only two women preceded them as physicians that were formally installed as such by the countries in which they lived. One was Marie Durocher of Brazil, French by birth, who graduated in 1834 from the Medical School of Rio de Janeiro. She adopted men’s dress and became midwife to the family of Brazil’s Emperor.
A complete list by country is available on Wikipedia.
The Very First
The other, and the most remarkable of the group, was Dorothea Christiane Erxleben (née Leporin). Erxleben is unique for being the very first female physician to be so recognized by any country. In 1754 she was granted an MD degree from the University of Halle.
What does this momentous event have to do with The Abbey of Quedlinburg and Frederick the Great, you might ask. Here’s the back story.
Charlemagne’s empire was partitioned at the Treaty of Verdun. The part known as East Francia would become the great German empire, and in the Tenth Century Henry the Fowler was elected its king. He was crowned at Quedlinburg, which city he bestowed to his wife, St. Matlida.
“After Henry's death in 936, his widow Saint Matilda founded a religious community for women ("Frauenstift") on the castle hill, where daughters of the higher nobility were educated.”
This abbey was special It was self-ruling, answering only to the Pope on church matters, had a seat at the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire and sat on the bench of the College of Ruling Princes. And It was run by women. St. Matilda was the first abbess.
Without proof, I will speculate that this heritage of feminine authority was important to a certain doctor’s daughter, born in Quedlinburg some 800 years later, when the abbey was still in full force.
This is not to say that the society into which Dorothea Leporin was born was open–minded. It was not. Women could not hold office. And, it was argued, if women cannot hold office, they most certainly should not practice medicine.
But her father, Christian Polycarp Leporin, a physician, taught her medicine anyway. Dorothea was well aware that Laura Bassi had broken ground in Italy by obtaining a Phd from the University of Bologna. (She was to become the first female professor in Europe). Leporin lobbied for the right of women to attend university in Germany and in 1754 she became the first German woman to receive a PhD.
She put her knowledge of medicine to use in the town, but objections by established doctors were vehement. She was accused of quackery, being a witch and referred to as “a dear lady [who] considers herself a doctor, only by virtue of the fact that she can toss around some broken Latin and French.” Besides, how could she practice medicine when she was constantly getting pregnant? (She eventually had four children, and helped raise 5 step-children with her husband, a deacon and professor of physics).
At that time, Germany was ruled by Frederick the Great. The embodiment of ‘enlightened despotism’, he believed that “…he must act with honesty, wisdom, and complete disinterestedness in such a way that he can render an account of his stewardship to his citizens.” This King of Prussia granted Erxleben a dispensation. Furthermore, the rector of the University of Halle decided that the dispute over ‘doctor’ Erxleben would best be settled by allowing her to sit for the exam. She acquitted herself nicely. Rector Junker said that she “proved herself like a man.”
She spent the rest of her life practicing medicine (with an MD degree), tending her family and lecturing women on the need to get an education.
Poignant and compelling, these narratives offer insights into the struggles and triumphs of women in medicine. Much like an American quilt, this book is a unique and richly textured patchwork of each woman's extraordinary life and career.
Drawing on all the best available literature and the experience of thousands of women doctors, the book covers: getting into medical school; overcoming gender stereotypes; finding a mentor; combining parenting with a career; and maximising career development.
For more general expositions on women in medicine see:
American Medical Women’s Association, (the AWMA)
Changing the Face of Medicine, (an NIH site)
The Stethoscope Sorority (the Countway Library)
Women Physicians (Drexel University)
Quite aside from the ‘first female doctor…’ construct is a rich history of women in medicine throughout the ages and in many guises.
For a survey of books on the history of medicine, check out our Amazon affiliate link.