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From the Archives: Breaking down the gender barriers in the 19th century

Image of men and women students in physiology laboratory, circa 1920s.Oregon was a forerunner in access to medical education for women. Women were studying medicine at Willamette University (whose medical programs were later to merge with the University of Oregon Department of Medicine) in the 1870s, when few medical schools admitted female students. By the end of the 19th century, about 35 medical schools in the U.S. admitted women. Among these forward-thinking institutions was the University of Oregon Department of Medicine, now OHSU.

Proponents of women’s medical education drew on popular sentiment when they argued that women doctors would be more sympathetic to patients. It was also widely recognized that some female patients would prefer a woman doctor. The first women with MD degrees were heavily concentrated in specializations traditionally associated with women’s “natural abilities,” such as obstetrics, gynecology, pediatrics and public health. In 1935, one University of Oregon Medical School alumna suggested that women students should “try to specialize in some field to which particularly adapted women are needed…and do not need to supplant men.”

Fortunately, acceptance of women in medicine grew over the 20th century, and the increasing numbers of women students at OHSU can now look to many women faculty as role models and mentors. Today, women comprise 54 percent of the medical student body at OHSU.

Pictured: Male and female students in the physiology lab c. 1920s

Contributed by Maija Anderson, archivist, OHSU Historical Collections & Archives


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