The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Sparing the Senses: the Anatomical Education of Female Physicians

Graduates of the Woman's Medical College, 1915

Graduates of the Woman's Medical College, 1915.

Only three women had graduated from a chartered college of medicine by 1851.  The most famous of these women, Elizabeth Blackwell, attempted – and failed - to enter medical college in Philadelphia in 1847. 

Women physicians challenged the male dominance of 19th-century medicine.  "Occupational closures," such as limiting access to necessary skills, knowledge and entry credentials, limited women's access to the profession, as did the reticence of professional societies to admit women into membership. 

Professional opposition was met head on by the founding in 1850 of the first medical school for women, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, which became Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) in 1867.

The 1850-51 Annual Announcement stated that “Anatomical Rooms will be furnished with every convenience and kept strictly private.”  “Material for dissection being abundant,” students were able to learn through dissection, as well as through use of papier mache models and pathological specimens.

The first female professor of anatomy, Dr. Emmeline Horton Cleveland, was appointed in the 1857-58 year.  By 1866, the majority of the teaching faculty at WMCP were female.

By 1869, students at WMCP were attending co-ed clinics at Pennsylvania Hospital and Wills’ Ophthalmic Hospital.  In one infamous instance on November 6, 1869, about 30 female students attended a clinic at Pennsylvania Hospital in which they observed surgical cases.  During the clinic, the women were exposed to the ridicule of male students, perhaps because women viewed a partially clad male patient in the co-ed setting.  The women were harassed while they were on hospital grounds, as well as in the press in the days to come.  One University of Pennsylvania student went so far as to write a letter describing WMCP students as a “shameless herd of sexless beings who dishonor the garb of ladies – this beardless set of non-blushers.”

Unlike many women-only medical schools, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania continued successfully into the 20th century.  In 1970, the college admitted its first co-ed class, and changed its name to the “Medical College of Pennsylvania.”