Historical Photos Depict Women Medical Pioneers

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. There's a remarkable picture that has been making the rounds on the web recently and it caught our eye. You may have seen the shot. It's of a group of medical students and they are all women, one's from Japan, one's from Indian, and the third from Syria and they're all wearing traditional clothes from their home countries. Nothing to remarkable in that you might say until you see the date 1885, yep 1885, and that blew us away in several respects. These women were students at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. The World's resident history buff, Chris Woolf, has been digging into the back story here. And Chris you found really that these women were nothing short of medical pioneers.

Chris Woolf: Yeah, and first off I should say the picture is true. We did manage to find the original in the archives of Drexel University, which absorbed the college back in 2003. And all three women graduated, each of them were the first women from their respective countries to get a degree in western medicine.

Werman: So tell us about these women. Why were they here in the United States?

Woolf: Well, the most information relates to this very determined looking woman from India, Anandabai Joshee. She was married off at the age of nine, very high caste Brahmin family. And the husband, kind of in a fatherly way, encouraged her education, so pretty progressive for his time. But what really motivated her to become a doctor was the fact that she did get pregnant at age 13 and gave birth at 14 and the child unfortunately die after just ten days because of the unavailability of medical care to women in her area, even for a high caste woman like her.

Werman: Right

Woolf: And so, she just set her mind to becoming a doctor, managed to overcome incredible obstacles, had to master English, had to find connections, find somewhere where she could actually go. Then just the problems of caste, observant Hindus at the time just wouldn't even travel over the sea, it would corrupt their caste, cause them to sin if you look at it in that kind of sense. They couldn't have food that wasn't prepared by other Brahmins. She was the first Hindu woman to come to America, to set foot in this country. And so, she managed to get the sponsorship and came to America.

Werman: She seems to have broken many barriers. Let's just unpack one of them. Coming to America, I mean she could have gone to school in India, maybe. Why did she come to America?

Woolf: Well, that's the problem. Pretty much the only place in the world at that time for women to get a medical education was in America. And this attributes to the Quakers of Pennsylvania. They founded the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania way back in 1850, which I'm sorry to say, I was surprised it was that far back. It was the first in the world and immediately began attracting determined women from other countries. First Europe and other parts of North America and then further afield. And these women, like Anandabai Joshee in India and Kei Okami from Tokyo, heard about the Women's Medical College through one means or another. And made the decision to defy all those expectations of their society and the family, in some cases, and travel independently to America to apply and then figure out how to pay for their tuition and board. So, for me it was a kind of reminder of just how obviously these women are incredible achievers but it's also a reminder of how exceptional America was in the 19th century. We spend so much time thinking about the legitimately bad things in American history and yet compared to the rest of the world it was this inspirational beacon of freedom and equality.

Werman: Yeah, and it sound like a lot of it is about this Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. I'm just curious, how much did a medical degree cost in those days if you went to this particular school.

Woolf: Well, the archivist at Drexel was very kind enough to send me the scale of fees from 1885. And theââ?¬ ¦ Are you sitting down?

Werman: Well, I usually don't, but I'll try not to fall backwards.

Woolf: $325.50 for three years.

Werman: Which was probably a lot of money in those days. I'm just trying to justify it somehow.

Woolf: It's still a lot of money but compared to other medical degrees it was quite a good value at the time.

Werman: That is extraordinary. So, Chris, what happened to these women? Did they go back to Japan, and India and Syria and do great things for their countries?

Woolf: The records are a little spotty. The Syrian lady, Sabat Islambooly, went back to Damascus and practiced medicine. There's a record of her in the alumni magazine of being in Cairo in 1919, but after that she lost touch with the college so it's not known what happened to her ultimately. Kei Okami went back to Tokyo and was recognized as a doctor and was appointed head of gynecology at one of the hospitals there, but within a few years she resigned. Apparently the emperor paid a visit to the hospital and he refused to receive her as a woman.

Werman: Why? Because she was a woman doctor?

Woolf: Because she was a woman. Yes. Japan was emerging from a period of great respect for traditional values. Anyway, having lived in America, she just was so offended by that, she quit and went into private practice and did practice for about twenty years. She was visited by a representative from the college in 1939 just before World War II. We have a picture of her on the website theworld.org

Werman: And what about Anandabai Joshee from India?

Woolf: Well she, India was then part of the British Empire, so Queen Victoria , herself sent a telegram of congratulations upon her graduation. And she got a position as physician in charge over the female ward at a hospital in the princely state of Kolhapur. But tragically contracted tuberculosis and within a few months died at the age of 21. But she is remembered as something of a national hero among the Indian feminists.

Werman: A pretty incredible picture with a pretty incredible story once The World's Chris Woolf got the skinny on the story. Chris, thanks for talking with us about these groundbreaking women.

Woolf: A pleasure.