Leaders and Best: Milestones in the history of women in medicine at U-M

March 9, 2020  //  FOUND IN: News,
Top row, L-R: Amanda Sanford, Gertrude Banks, Eliza Mosher, Alice Hamilton.
Bottom row, L-R: Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu), Elizabeth Crosby, Kathleen Shingler Weston, Antonia Novello.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, a milestone in American medical history happened on the U-M campus.

At their March 1870 meeting, the U-M board of regents was asked to consider allowing women to study medicine alongside men — something no other university had yet allowed.

Though it took them until July to approve the idea, that decision paved the way for the first female medical students in America to earn their medical degrees not in a separate medical college for women, but in the same setting as men.

As part of the celebration of Michigan Medicine’s history and heritage, and in honor of Women’s History Month, here are some other key highlights from the role of women in the institution.

1870: In January, the U-M board of regents passed a one-sentence resolution that paved the way for women to enroll. In March, they’re asked to consider the education of women as medical students, but on the condition that the female students receive some aspects of their education separate from male students, or that a separate women-only medical college be established. By July, they formally approve the education of women as medical students, providing additional funds to compensate professors for teaching extra lectures to female students. The first 18 female medical students enrolled in the fall.

1871: Amanda Sanford, who had started her medical training in Boston, becomes U-M’s first female medical graduate, receiving her degree with highest honors but enduring jeers and thrown paper when introduced to present her research paper at the March ceremony.

1872: Sarah Gertrude Banks, known as Gertie, a native of Walled Lake, Michigan, graduates with her M.D. She went on to become one of Detroit’s most prominent physicians, caring for everyone from Henry Ford’s wife Clara to the poorest women and children, while fighting for women’s suffrage. 

1874: After just a few years of educating female medical students separately from men, the decision is made to combine the classes.

1875: Eliza M. Mosher graduates with her medical degree, having entered in 1871 and worked as anatomy demonstrator, including in front of the men’s class. She returned to U-M in 1896 as the university’s first female faculty member, serving as both a professor of hygiene and the first dean of women.

1876: The university’s first female employee to appear on the state payroll, Kate Crane, is hired as an assistant in the chemical laboratory, with a salary of $500 a year. An 1874 graduate of the pharmacy program, she’s listed as an accountant and dispenser of chemicals for the laboratory, where medical students and others learned to prepare medications.

1889: When the medical school opens a new dedicated building for anatomical training, it includes a separate area for female students — informally known as “hen medics.”

1891: The board of regents approved the creation of a training school for nurses at the newly opened hospital complex on Catherine Street, under the medical school’s umbrella. The first six students, all women, enroll the same year. The forerunner of the School of Nursing, it awarded diplomas to its first classes but became a degree-granting program in 1919.  

1892: The first Chinese students admitted to U-M, Mary Stone (Shi Meiyu) and Ida Kahn (Kang Cheng), begin their studies in medicine.

1893: Alice Hamilton, who would go on to become the first female professor at Harvard University and a national leader of the new field of occupational health, graduates from U-M with her medical degree.

1897: Edna Day receives U-M’s first master’s degree in hygiene, the program that was the forerunner of today’s School of Public Health.

1900: After 30 years of women studying medicine at U-M, 394 women had graduated with medical degrees.

1902: The Women’s Research Club formed, because women had been refused entry into the Junior Research Club founded for younger teaching and research staff. Lydia Maria DeWitt, M.D., an 1898 medical school graduate who had joined the faculty as a histology researcher and teacher, was elected the first president. The club provided an environment for women who conducted scientific research, or were pursuing scientific studies, to present and discuss their work.

1920: Elizabeth Crosby, Ph.D., joined the anatomy faculty, and in 1936 became the first woman to become a full professor. She taught and performed advanced research in neuroanatomy at U-M until 1963, and received the National Medal of Science in 1980. 

1934: Kathleen Shingler Weston, M.S., graduates from the medical school with her master’s degree in anatomy and genetics, and goes on to become a prominent toxicologist who worked on the Salk polio vaccine at the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company.

1974: Antonia Novello, M.D., trains in nephrology and pediatrics as an intern and resident at U-M. She went on to become the first female and first Latinx Surgeon General of the United States.

1994: Rhetaugh Graves Dumas, Ph.D., is named the vice provost for medical affairs, overseeing the clinical operations of the academic medical center.

2003: Valerie Castle, M.D., is named chair of pediatrics, the first woman to chair a department.

2019: 60 percent of the entering class of U-M medical students identify as female.

For more about the history of women in what we now know as Michigan Medicine, click here.

For more about the history of Michigan Medicine, visit http://uofmhealth.org/history.

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