First class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School, 1945


First class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School, 1945

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Title: First class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School, 1945
Abstract: September 26, 1945 -

The first class of women admitted to Harvard Medical School in 1945. Shown seated on the steps of Building A, class members are, in the front row (left to right): Ladislas Dolores Wojcik; Doris Ruth Rubin; Ellen Ann Schwartz; Martha Joan Kern Caires; and Marjorie Jane Kirk. Second row: JoAnn Tanner; Shirley Marilyn Gallup; Edith Louise Stone; Marcia Laura Gordon; Dora Benedict; Raquel Eidelman; Idolene Hegeman.

Perhaps the best known of images relating to women at Harvard Medical School, this photograph represents a dramatic change in the history of women in Harvard medicine, one that took nearly a hundred years of advocacy by men and women to effect.

The entry of women into the medical school as full-fledged medical students was the direct result of a special faculty meeting of May 22, 1944. At that meeting, a subcommittee of the Administrative Board presented a report that argued for the admission of women on several grounds, including that male students would benefit from learning to view women as equals and that the lower paid areas of medicine, typically shunned by men, would benefit from the talents of married women doctors who would not be concerned with supporting a family. The strongest argument of that report and the similar report of the year before (whose recommendations had been rejected by the Corporation, the University's governing body) was the most obvious one: the lowest third of the entering class of men could be replaced by a superior group of women, thus strengthening the quality of the class as a whole. This became increasingly important as the draft began to absorb the qualified male students. The subcommittee concluded: "Harvard will have to seriously lower her standards in the immediate future or content herself with smaller classes". The present committee, not only finds itself in general agreement with last year's Faculty committee that the admission of women is desirable as a general policy but wishes also to urge the expeditious lifting of the present restrictions in order to meet the existing emergency."

The Faculty vote to accept the recommendation of the committee was nearly unanimous, and the Corporation voted in agreement on June 5, 1944. The Board of Overseers consented to the vote on September 25, 1944.

The chain of events that led to this outcome began in 1847, when Harriot K. Hunt addressed an application to Oliver Wendell Holmes, then the Dean of the Medical Faculty. Hunt had been trained through an apprenticeship, like many of her male counterparts, and had practiced medicine since 1835. She now sought a more scientific education. The application was referred to the President and fellows of the College who deemed it inadvisable "to alter the existing regulations of the Medical School".

Over the next 97 years, women applicants and physicians of both genders advocated for the admission of women as regular or special students. The common themes of the period are the difficulty in bringing to an agreement the three concerned parties, the University's governing bodies, the Faculty of Medicine, and the student body, and the dedication of women applicants and their advocates in their quest to obtain the best medical education possible.

In the years since the first class of women were admitted, remarkable changes have taken place. For the first few decades of coeducation, women comprised about 5 to 10 percent of the incoming classes. This began to shift in the 1970's, and by the 1990's classes were equally divided among male and female students. A related shift is occurring in the faculty; although it is still dominated by men, the number of female faculty members has more than doubled every 10 years. Women made up 14 percent of the faculty in 1980, 25 percent in 1990, and 32 percent today.

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