Northwestern University Woman's Medical School records/Chicago Woman's Medical College
Held at: Drexel University: College of Medicine Legacy Center [Contact Us]
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The Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago was founded in 1870 by Mary H. Thompson (1829-1895) and Dr. William Heath Byford (1817-1890) in order to provide equal education opportunities for female medical students in the Chicago area. In 1879, the name of the medical school was changed to the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago; and in 1892, it was taken over by the Northwestern University and renamed the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School. Over the next ten years, financial difficulties arose and in 1902, the medical school was dismantled. The Woman’s Clinical Dispensary, “a working corps of clinical teachers and assistants” who held clinics, survived until 1907.
Mary Harris Thompson was born on April 15, 1829 in Fort Ann, New York. She was educated at Fort Edward Institute (Fort Edward, New York) and West Poultney Academy (West Poultney, Vermont). While at West Poultney, Dr. Thompson’s aptitude was recognized and she was encouraged to “prepare herself in some other institution and return to become instructor in physiology, anatomy and hygiene, a department which was desired should be added to the Poultney school,” ( In memoriam). As a result, Dr. Thompson resumed her education at New England Female Medical College in Boston, decided to become a physician, obtained practical experience at New York Infirmary for Women and Children and graduated with her degree in 1863.
Dr. Thompson began practicing medicine in Chicago in July 1863. Many of her first patients were “wives, widows, and children of Union soldiers,” (Encyclopedia).Because only one of Chicago’s two existing hospitals admitted women patients, and neither allowed women to serve on staff, Dr. Thompson founded the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children in 1865, serving as its head physician and surgeon. With these new and increased responsibilities, Dr. Thompson “realizing the need for further medical studies, applied to Rush [Medical College] for admission but was refused,” (Davis, page 42). As a result, in 1869, Dr. Thompson sought the assistance of Dr. William Heath Byford, the Chair of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women at the Chicago Medical College (later part of Northwestern University). Their efforts resulted in the Chicago Medical College faculty agreeing to allow women to enroll in autumn of 1869 and graduate as equals to male medical students. However, by the following autumn, the Chicago Medical College faculty reversed their decision and no women were admitted in the autumn of 1870.
Undeterred, Dr. Byford proposed the establishment of a woman’s college to be affiliated with the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children. In August 1870, Dr. Byford called a meeting to organize the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago. He was elected President of the faculty, which was composed of Dr. Thompson and consulting physicians to the Woman’s Hospital, many of whom were graduates or faculty members of the Chicago Medical College.
During its first year, there were “17 matriculates, and the session was considered a real success,” (Davis, page 443). In 1871, the College lost its rooms and equipment to the Chicago Fire, which also destroyed the Chicago Woman’s Hospital and the residences and offices of numerous members of the faculty; however, classes resumed almost immediately. In 1872, the Woman’s Hospital built a new building, located at Adams and Paulina Streets, and the College began working out of a converted barn on this property. Later, a building was purchased at 337 South Lincoln Street which provided “two amphitheaters, a well equipped chemical laboratory and a convenient, well lighted dissecting room,” (Davis, page 444).
Despite a faculty consisting “of some of the most eminent professors in the city,” (Davis, page 444) by 1876, dissatisfaction had grown among the students of the College. A committee was organized to investigate the causes and found that students’ dissatisfaction resulted from “lack of clinical advantages…; the bad condition in which the dissecting room was kept last winter; … irregular attendance of one of the professors; … [and that the] college building is not proportionate in elegance and ornamentation to the dignity of this great institution.” Faculty determined, by 1877, that the College was in an "'anaemic debilitated condition’ due to inadequate facilities, lack of teaching apparatus and material, and insufficient interest and involvement of the faculty” and that merging with Northwestern University or reorganization was necessary.
Dr. Byford chaired the committee to reorganize which accepted the resignation of the entire faculty and appointed a new faculty made up largely of members of the preceding faculty. A new building was built, financed mostly by loans from the members of the new faculty. It was agreed that no members of the faculty would receive reimbursement until all outside parties were repaid. Furthermore, an agreement was made with the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church to accept students from that society at half the cost.
Two years later, in 1879, it was discovered the organization of the college was not legal and the college was reconstituted as a joint-stock company. At that time, the name was changed to the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago.
In 1881, the Alumnae Association was reorganized under Dr. Sarah Hackett Stevenson (1843-1909) with three objectives: “to perpetuate the friendships engendered and fostered by the ties that unite us by reason of our common alma mater; to promote advancement in the medical education of woman; and to secure to the Woman’s Medical College a record of the professional history of its alumnae.” The Alumnae Association established a loan fund for new graduates to help set up practices, pursue internships, or post-graduate study in 1888. Throughout 1890 and 1891, funds were raised to commission a marble bust of Dr. William H. Byford by Lorado Taft. It was unveiled in 1891.
Over the years, the Woman’s Medical College succeeded in it mission to educate women physicians, and in fact “opportunities for clinical instruction in obstetrics and gynecology were unequaled by any other school in the city; the students attended clinics regularly at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital and at the Woman’s Hospital … [and] graduates … served their internships in these hospitals, and, as the reputation of the school spread, other hospitals in the city accepted its graduates for internships,” (Davis, page 447). Notable professors included Drs. William Heath Byford, Mary Harris Thompson, Marie J. Mergler, Bertha van Hoosen (1863-1952), Charles W. Earle, Veta Annette Latham, Daniel R. Brower, E. Fletcher Ingals, and Edwin Rhodes. According to Helga Ruud, “during the 1890s, great changes took place in the attitude of the medical profession and the laity towards women in medicine, in keeping with the trend of the times when women all over the world finally conquered intolerable prejudice and injustice and attained the right to enter any sphere of work on equal terms with men,” (Davis, page 448). In light of this progress, the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago became a part of Northwestern University in 1892 and the union was named the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical College.
Due to financial difficulties, the issue of coeducation to ensure suitable laboratories for women students was debated in 1897; and then again in 1900.
In 1902, the Trustees of Northwestern University discontinued the Woman’s Medical College. The Alumnae of the College worked together to preserve the legacy of the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago and some teachers and assistants acquired a charter from the State of Illinois enabling them to hold clinics as the “Woman’s Clinical Dispensary.” This organization lasted until 1907 when it was officially dissolved.
Arey, Leslie B. Northwestern University Medical School, 1859-1895. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1959.
Davis, David J., M.D., Ph.D., editor. History of Medical Practice in Illinois, Volume II: 1850-1900. Illinois State Medical Society, 1955.
In memoriam: Mary Harris Thompson, 1829-1895. Chicago: J. B. Huling, Printer, 1896
Kaufman, M. et al. Editor. Dictionary of American medical biography. 2 volumes. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press., 1984.
Kelly, H.A., and W. L. Burrage. Dictionary of American medical biography. New York: Appleton, 1928.
Woman’s Medical College of Chicago/Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School records, 1870-1924, 1947.
This collection documents the Chicago Woman’s Medical College and its transitions into the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School from 1870 to 1945, with the bulk of the material created from 1870 to 1924. This collection is organized into eight series: “Alumnae Association,” “Alumnae biographies,” "Alumnae correspondence,” “Alumnae and college histories,” “Alumnae surveys,” “Annual announcements,” “Reports, minutes and correspondence,” and "Woman’s Clinical Dispensary.”
The bulk of the collection consists of records of the Alumnae Association including minutes of the association, correspondence, survey forms completed by Alumnae in 1914, class reports, necrology reports (alumnae “biographies”), and membership lists. Aside from the minutes of the Alumnae, drafts of the bylaws, and occasional items of business correspondence, there is little documentation of the “official" business of the Association.
Nevertheless, the alumnae material is an invaluable source of biographic data on women physicians. It provides evidence of the nature and depth of the alumnae’s feelings toward their alma mater and their profession. Although practitioners from Chicago and its suburbs figure prominently in this collection, the alumnae material, in conjunction with student lists in the Annual Announcements, vividly depict the broad geographic distribution of the students and alumnae of the Women’s Medical College of Chicago.
The 1914 survey of the alumnae, in particular, furnished data on the professional life of these women including education and/or occupation prior to medical school; internships and/or post-graduate training, both in the United States and in Europe; appointments as physicians to hospitals, asylums, universities, mission posts, health departments, and school boards. The surveys also give such details as field of specialization; private practice; articles, papers, books published; memberships in professional associations; and related or outside activities, such as school board appointments, lobbying for state or national legislative reforms in health, labor, education, medical accreditation/licensure, and suffrage. The survey forms often include reflections on the respondents’ lives as physicians or their feelings toward their alma mater.
The Alumnae correspondence and alumnae biographies (necrology reports) help to fill out the picture with descriptions of abundance of work or lack thereof; of individual patient cases; of the politics of hospital or asylum appointments; of obstacles, positive influences, or the lack thereof on work; hobbies and travel; and professional mentoring, networking and support—not only amongst alumnae of Women’s Medical College, but also male colleagues, and relatives of either sex. This series includes personal statements describing family life and obligations: “my little sister graduates from High School this June and I am saving to help her through College.” There are also poignant letters from husbands (some of whom were also M.D.s), sisters, and other relatives reporting the death of an alumna. Personal health and its impact on medical studies and practice, is occasionally referred to in alumnae letters and figures largely in the “biographies” reported by the necrologist.
The alumnae files—particularly the Byford Memorial correspondence—give evidence of the financial status and concerns of the alumnae. The women write of their reasons for being unable to make contributions as well as causes to which they cheerfully gave money or to which they refused to give money.
Prior to 1877 (when the faculty was reorganized), faculty minutes are frustratingly vague. The contents of communications, resolutions, reports and discussions are not delineated. The primary concern during the early years appears to be securing a location for the college lectures, dissection, et al. Aside from this, there is very little evidence of the physical or administrative functioning of the college.
With the reorganization of the faculty, the minutes become more illuminating, detailing the financial state of college; its relations with other organizations (e.g. the American Association of Medical Colleges, various schools and hospitals in Chicago); changes in the curriculum; the physical plant of the college (including buildings, teaching apparatus and “material”); means of advertising the college (publications, various cities and amount spent); non-medical employees (e.g. janitor); interactions with students; etc.
Dr. Eliza Root, an alumna and faculty member of the Chicago Woman's Medical College, and dean at the time of its closing, appears to have been the key figure in preserving the records of the Chicago Medical College. In 1914, Dr. N. Soule Davenport wrote to Dr. Eliza Root: "My Dear Dr. Root--The letters Dr. Homer Thomas so kindly brought were to go in the Archives somewhere, weren't they? I will mail them to you soon." (See Alumnae correspondence, Box 1, Folder 41). According to the minutes of an informal meeting of the alumnae, held October 20, 1920, Dr. Root:
"...stated that she has stored in a closet in her home a package containing the histories of the various classes. In breaking up her home, it is necessary to find a new place to store them and she is very desirous to complete the histories of all the classes and have copies in the various medical libraries ... Dr. Root also called the attention of those present to the fact that the Byford Bust was still at the Art Institute [crossed out and 'Taft studio' inserted] and that the Faculty Secretary's books were also homeless and the Alumnae Association was the logical recipient of these valuable books. Dr. Wynekoop offered to take charge of all papers and other property of the Alumnae Association formerly held by Dr. Root [pending ultimate disposal]."
The records came to the Legacy Center with the American Medical Women's Association Historical Collection in 1977. It is possible that they were given to AMWA for the Medical Woman's Library, perhaps via Bertha Van Hoosen, who spearheaded promotion and collection for the Library. Van Hoosen, a founder of AMWA and editor of the Medical Woman's Journal, had served on the faculty of the Northwestern Woman's Medical School. The records were separated from the AMWA Historical Collection.
The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project. Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
- Drexel University: College of Medicine Legacy Center
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- Finding aid prepared by Finding aid prepared by Sandra Chaff, 1979; Teresa Taylor, 1993-1994
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- The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project. Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
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This collection is open for research use.
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