The mothers of Johns Hopkins Medicine

Here, just in time for Mother's Day, is a little known story about the enterprise that has set the bar for the practice of medicine in America. When all was said and done, it was women who served as midwives for the dream.

And, it was a woman who insisted on the high standards that have made Johns Hopkins Medicine the paragon it has been.

Women attended medical school in the 19th century; there were even medical schools just for women. However, women had a hard time being taken seriously at most of the top medical schools -- and that is an understatement.

The exception was Johns Hopkins, where three women were part of the first class, and where women have been part of the student body straight through to the present -- very unusual, given all the changes that occurred in medical education early in the 20th century. (More on that in future posts.)

What made the difference? At a crucial point, a savvy, determined group of women held the pursestrings.

The money earmarked for construction of the medical school was underwritten with stock in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. In 1888, when the value of that stock plummeted, the fate of the school was uncertain.

Mary Elizabeth Garrett
Mary Elizabeth Garrett

Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, Mary Gwinn and Julia Rogers -- the so-called "Friday Evening Group" -- were wealthy Baltimore feminists, friends, stellar fund-raisers and (except for Rogers) daughters of members of the original board of trustees. They pledged $500,000 to Johns Hopkins Medicine, but only if women were allowed to attend the school. Opposition was fierce, but the women got what they had asked for.

Garrett, who contributed the bulk of the money herself, further demanded that medical-school candidates have a college degree with a concentration in basic science, and be able to speak and read French, German and Latin.

William Welch himself had proposed these requirements years before but they had been dismissed as unrealistic. Now every Hopkins undergraduate, male and female, would have to meet them. As William Osler joked to Welch, "It is lucky that we got in as professors; we could never enter as students."

Of the women in that first class, one quit to become a Christian Scientist and one married her anatomy professor. Only Mary Packard became a doctor. Years later, though, Welch wrote, "We regard co-education a success; those of us who were not enthusiastic at the beginning are now sympathetic and friendly."

Painting by John Singer Sargent

The medium was the message

Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States, but it’s her sister, Anna, I would like to consider today. Anna Blackwell was a Spiritualist; that is, she believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

She wasn’t alone. Many prominent families, especially in the Northeast, contributed passionate believers to this native American religion. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had two siblings who were Spiritualists.

Today perhaps most people view Spiritualism as a hoax, but in the mid-19th century, when electricity was beginning to be harnessed and people realized there were things about their world they couldn’t see and didn’t understand, Spiritualism attracted a huge number of followers.

Spiritualism sprang to life in a small town near Rochester, N.Y., in 1848 after two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, 12 and 14 years old, claimed that the raps that only occurred in their presence were urgent messages from a dead man they said was buried in the basement of their house.

The Fox sisters

Margaret and Kate Fox with their sister Leah (left to right)

When the sisters moved into Rochester, they were taken up by an enthralled community of progressive people ready to move away from the grim outlook of traditional religions, and traumatized by the virtually universal untimely loss of children and other loved ones.

“The hunger for communion with the dead gave Spiritualism its content, transforming what may have been a teenage prank into a new religion,” writes Ann Braude, author of Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth Century America.

Many of these people discovered that they, too, could communicate with the dead. Virtually all these mediums were women, and even young girls. Spiritualism was not a particularly organized religion, but it did pick up a guiding philosophy from the Quakers, abolitionists and feminists who swelled its ranks.

One of the most important tenets of Spiritualism was gender equality. “Not all feminists were Spiritualists, but all Spiritualists advocated women’s rights,” Braude writes.

Documentation is scarce, but membership estimates range from a few hundred thousand to 11 million at a time when the United States population was 25 million, Braude reports.

What does Spiritualism have to do with the birth story? According to Braude’s book, this colorful native American religion played a major role in preparing women to occupy a role on the center stage of American life.

We’re going to explore that connection this week.