“You must, on the one hand, forget that any social prejudices stand in your way as physicians: but on the other hand you must remember that, in virtue of these, you continue to have certain class interests, which can not, with either justice or safety, be ignored.” – Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi
Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi was a medical doctor whose work helped disprove many discriminatory assumptions about women’s bodies in her seminal paper, The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation. In addition to her medical research, Mary also enabled generations of women to enter the medical profession through her teaching and lobbying.
Mary was born in 1842 in London, to American parents. In 1848, the family returned to the US to live in New York, where Mary was also educated. Mary had known she wanted to study medicine from a young age. Writing as an adult she recalled, at age 9, finding a dead rat and wanting to cut it open to study its organs. Mary realised her dream in 1861, when she became the first woman admitted to the New York College of Pharmacy and went on to graduate with an M.D. from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
In 1866, after lobbying the university, Mary became the first woman to study medicine at the École de Médecine in Paris. However, her admission came with stipulations: she was forbidden from entering through the same door as the male students, and she had to sit alone and close to the professor.
Later – continuing her tradition of firsts – upon her return to the USA, Mary became the first woman to be voted into the New York Academy of Medicine.
In 1873, Edward Clark, M.D., published Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance For Girls, which argued that women could not cope with the traditional academic demands placed on men. Clark proposed that women who pushed themselves to compete with their male counterparts could experience nervous collapse and sterility. He concluded that if women were to have the same educational rights as men, it would lead to long-term damage to women’s reproductive organs. As women had only just been allowed to enter further education, there was no data to prove nor disprove Clark’s claims. Clark’s paper caused outrage among feminists, especially as much of the First Wave’s fight had been about realising equal education opportunities for women.
The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation was Mary’s calm and heavily researched response to Clark’s claims. Unlike Clark, who had relied on anecdotal observation, Mary put a range of women through medical trials to investigate their menstrual pain, muscle strength, cycle length and daily exercise; her findings concluded that there was nothing about menstruation which impaired women’s physical or mental abilities, disproving Clark’s study. In 1876, almost to confirm Mary’s intellectual victory, her paper won the Boylston Medical Prize at Harvard – the school at which Clark taught.
The Question of Rest had a structural influence. In the late 19th century, there was a common assumption regarding the biological difference between male and female bodies: that the female body was inferior. As her paper disproved many misconceptions about menstruation and the capability of the female body using data and research, Mary’s research became an important part of medical literature and contributed towards the changing social perception of the female body.
Throughout her career, Mary had been championed by women, including Ann Preston, who had supported Mary at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, and Marie Zarkrzewska, who gave Mary her first chance to practice medicine at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in 1862. Mary used her early experience of being supported by women as a model for her own career. She mentored female students, taught at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and founded the Association of the Medical Education of Women, which later became the Women’s Medical Association of New York City. She also continued to lobby universities to accept women to study medicine throughout her career.
In addition to her work as a medical doctor, Mary was a prolific writer. In 1860, two years before she began her medical studies, Mary’s first short story, Lost and Found, was published in The Atlantic. Throughout her life, she published 9 books and over 120 medical articles. In 1873, Mary married Dr. Abraham Jacobi, who specialised in paediatrics. The couple had three children together, although only one survived to adulthood.
Mary died in 1906 at age 63, but not before predicting her own death and cause of death in a detailed investigation into her own illness – Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum. From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself.
Mary’s work and attitude of challenging assumptions about the female body remain of vital importance today. As questions over the tampon tax, female fertility rates and smear test practices continue to be raised, the solution becomes clearer: that more women, and more feminists, need to be encouraged to enter medicine, politics and public life in order to continue to change medical practices, policies and debates around female health.