Specialists in women and babies

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was founded in Chicago in 1951, the latest in a line of associations that has sought to serve the organizational needs of specialists in medicine for women.

By the time the organization was founded, the controversy over whether the two specialties should be practiced separately or together had been largely resolved, which reflected an improvement of the status of obstetrics. (One 19th century proponent of keeping the two disciplines together had characterized obstetrics as "the portal to the temple of gynecology.")

Obstetricians are not the only doctors who deliver babies — family physicians attend about 20 percent of births nationally, and midwives, mostly nurse-midwives, handled about 8 percent of births in 2004. Still, obstetricians deliver the majority of American babies.

ACOG membership is voluntary. The group, now headquartered in Washington, D.C., has 52,000 members, more than 90 percent of board-certified OB-GYNs. Important ACOG activities include the annual meeting, continuing education and the publication of the monthly journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, the so-called Green Journal.

Some of  ACOG's members are specialists in maternal-fetal medicine, gynecologic oncology, reproductive endocrinology, and other areas.

He wrote the book

In 1899, John Whitridge Williams, whose name lives on in the definitive textbook on pregnancy and childbirth, succeeded Howard Kelly as the head of obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Kelly had split off baby-catching from the more interesting (to him) department of gynecology, which he continued to head up.

John Whitridge Williams
John Whitridge Williams

Williams, a Baltimore native, came from a medical family -- his mother's forebears had been doctors for 160 years. He trained at the University of Maryland, and then in Vienna, Berlin, and other European cities, which exposed him to a different way of looking at medicine.

Williams' Obstetrics, first published in 1903, and still in print today, came out of Williams' desire to render everything about pregnancy and birth in scientific terms. The first edition contained more than 1,000 references to other medical publications.

Williams wrote five additional editions of the book before he died in 1931, of complications from abdominal surgery.

The departments of obstetrics and gynecology were finally reunited at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1960.

The 23rd edition of Williams' Obstetrics was published in 2009.

The first woman doctor, U.S. division

As the first woman doctor in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell had the dubious honor of showing the way for women to qualify for and enter a profession in which, at the time, they were pointedly unwelcome.

Blackwell endured repeated rejections on her way into medical school, where she was shunned by the male students and shut out of clinical opportunities by the teachers. After she finished medical school, when no one would hire her, she founded her own hospital and made her own opportunities.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell was born in England; her father was a wealthy Quaker and sugar refiner whose business eventually fell on hard times. The large family moved to the United States when Elizabeth was 11 and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Blackwell''s father died when she was a teenager and the family opened a small private school, where Elizabeth began teaching.

When she decided she wanted to be a doctor, she was turned away from 29 medical schools before being accepted by the Geneva Medical School in Geneva, N.Y. In spite of the hostility she encountered there, she graduated at the top of her class in 1849, with plans to become a surgeon.

Blackwell traveled to Paris to take a course in midwifery, where she contracted an infection that cost her the sight in one eye. That put an end to her hopes of becoming a surgeon. Back in the United States, Blackwell found she couldn't get work in a hospital, so she went into private practice.

In 1853, along with her sister Emily, and Marie Zakrzewska, two other early female doctors, Blackwell founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, now New York Downtown Hospital. During the Civil War, Blackwell trained nurses to treat soldiers injured on the battlefield.

The Blackwell sisters also founded the Women's Medical College of New York in 1869, but within a few years, Elizabeth went back to England. She was a professor of gynecology at the London School of Medicine for Women for the rest of her working life. Blackwell died at the age of 89, in 1910.

A famous glass of milk

Dr. Howard A. Kelly, the subject of the previous post, is incidentally the star of a true story that has been recounted so often it has taken on a highly embellished life of its own.

While a very young man, Kelly was hiking around in rural Pennsylvania when he stopped at a house to ask for a glass of water. Thinking he looked hungry, the young woman who answered the door gave him a glass of milk instead.

Fast forward many years. The woman went to a hospital in the city to seek help with a serious gynecological condition. The great Dr. Kelly, as he now was, treated her successfully.

When it came time for the bill, the woman discovered that the invoice read, "Paid in full with one glass of milk."

Like many top doctors of his day, Dr. Kelly, who lived from 1858 to 1943, charged enormous fees. However, Audrey Davis, a friend and biographer, wrote that he often treated people for free. (Remember, people didn't have health insurance in those days.) For every patient Dr. Kelly charged for his services, he treated three for free, Davis reported.

So Dr. Kelly's generosity to the woman who had shown a young man a kindness was an everyday thing for him.

Still, it's a great story.