Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 25 1996

Pioneers of Excellence: The Women of Hopkins Medicine

Jane Sellman
Special to The Gazette

     In 1896, a distinguished middle-aged man accosted Dorothy
Reed as she disembarked from a trolley near an imposing red brick
building on Broadway.

     "Are you entering [here]?" he asked, gesturing toward the
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine building.

     "Yes," she answered.

     "Don't," he said.

     Reed, undaunted, ignored the advice of then Hopkins
physician-in-chief William Osler. It was a decision that worked
out well for both parties. Reed would go on to excel at her
studies and as a physician, and Hopkins would go on to benefit
from the accomplished scholarship, research and clinical practice
of Reed and the dozens of other women who were pioneers in the
male-dominated field of medicine.

     Women have always played a vital role in Hopkins medicine.
While the hospital accepted its first patients in 1889, the
establishment of the medical school was held up several years
because of "a precarious financial situation," writes John C.
Schmidt in Johns Hopkins: Portrait of a University. The problem
was substantially resolved in 1892 through the efforts of the
Women's Medical Fund, led by Mary Elizabeth Garrett's $354,764
contribution. Garrett was happy to help the school reach its
$500,000 funding goal, in part on the condition that women be
admitted on the same basis as men.

     Mary Packard was the first female graduate of the School of
Medicine. Since then, 1,290 women have graduated from the school.
Many have been leaders in their fields of scientific inquiry and
medical practice. Here are profiles of but a few of the first
women at Hopkins who went on to gain international prominence in
their respective disciplines.

     Like Dorothy Reed (Class of 1900), many women of varying
backgrounds, temperaments and interests made that journey to
Hopkins, but Garrett's ideals were not always realized. Women had
to battle for admission to the school, as well as for
internships, fellowships and residencies. They even had to fight
for the privilege of renting space for an office practice. In
some ways, that was the easy struggle. Oftentimes more difficult
was having to contend with rude and uncouth behavior and personal
indignities among fellow students and faculty. And it was not
uncommon for women to be barred from particular lessons or
demonstrations and to have to listen dispassionately to off-color
stories told by professors in lecture halls. 

     Dorothy Reed does not complain much in her memoirs of her
treatment at Hopkins. But she had her share of battles to fight,
including having to confront Henry Mills Hurd--the first
superintendent of the hospital--in order to keep her spot as an
intern in medicine, one she had earned rightfully due to her
class standing. A friend and colleague even complained to her
that he thought it unfair she should get an appointment that he
wanted in medicine, though she had graduated far ahead of him in
the class.

     When Dorothy Reed entered Hopkins in the late 1890s, she and
the rest of the medical world knew little of Hodgkin's disease,
and in fact thought it to be a form of tuberculosis.

     During training she worked in the pathology labs of doctors
William Welch and William Osler. While there she began studies
that led to the association of a particular cell and the
microscopic changes in that cell with Hodgkin's disease and the
recognition of it as a neoplastic disease of the lymphatic system
and not a form of tuberculosis. The cell became known as the Reed
cell or Reed-Sternberg cell.

     Reed's work in maternal and child health had possibly even
more widespread influence. Though she married Charles Menden-hall
and retired briefly to raise her children, she returned to her
research in epidemiological studies on infant mortality. (Two of
Reed's children died in infancy, one as the result of a
mishandled delivery.) She developed a test to establish norms of
size and weight for infants. 

     When her husband's work during World War I took him to
Washington, D.C., Reed became a medical officer for the U.S.
Children's Bureau and worked on behalf of war orphans in Europe.
Later she traveled there and in Denmark conducted a study on
methods of childbirth. She became convinced that American medical
practices, which already relied heavily on technology, could be
detrimental to mother and child. She published a book, Midwifery
in Denmark, in which she advocated the use of midwives and a
return to more natural methods of childbirth here in the United

     Reed's friend and classmate, Florence Sabin (Class of 1900),
also found her strength in research. She developed an interest in
the workings of the body's lymphatic system during her medical
training. In fact her studies helped and influenced Reed's work. 

     Sabin's extensive research and writing on the lymphatic
system led to a series of monographs and to her work being
recognized in 1913 by George R. Minot--an expert on hematology
who developed a treatment for pernicious anemia--as one of the
five most significant developments in biology.

     Sabin became a full professor of histology in 1917. But she
was unhappy about being passed over for promotion to directorship
of the anatomy department at Hopkins, so she eventually moved on
to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research where she could
concentrate totally on research.

     When she retired, she volunteered her time as an advocate
for public health reform in her home state of Colorado. A
president of the American Association of Anatomists, Sabin also
became the first female member of the National Academy of

     Helen B. Taussig ('27) may be the most well-known woman to
earn her medical degree from Hopkins. She lent her name to the
Blalock-Taussig procedure for correcting congenital heart
defects, and she alerted the medical profession and public to the
dangers of thalidomide.

     Growing up in Massachusetts, Taussig attended college at
Radcliffe and Berkeley. She hoped to study public health medicine
at Harvard, but the dean told her that while she could
matriculate there, she could not earn a degree.

     "Who is going to be such a fool as to spend two years
studying medicine and two years more in public health and not get
a degree?" she asked.

     Having not gotten a satisfactory answer to that question,
she took an anatomy course in Boston, where her intelligence and
skill came to the attention of anatomy professor Alexander Begg,
who encouraged her to attend Hopkins and specialize in

     She entered Hopkins in 1923 and specialized in pediatrics
and cardiology. In 1930, Taussig administered the cardiac clinic
at the Harriet Lane Home, where she became interested in
rheumatic fever and congenital heart defects. With Alfred Blalock
and his technician, Vivien Thomas, she developed an idea for an
operation to help children with cyanotic congenital heart defect,
the "blue baby syndrome." This syndrome involves a malformation
of the heart that interferes with the amount of blood passing
through the pulmonary circuit. The Blalock-Taussig operation
redirects the blood flow so that an adequate volume passes
through the pulmonary circuit.

     In the early 1960s a colleague alerted Taussig to the
possible link between a commonly prescribed tranquilizer
thalidomide and a devastating birth deformation called phocomelia
(defective development of the arms or legs, or both.) She
traveled to Europe where the drug had been commonly prescribed
and reported her findings to her colleagues and the public.

     Caroline Bedell Thomas ('30) became a pioneer in the
treatment and prevention of acute rheumatic fever. The major
obstacle to her earning a medical degree proved to be neither
prejudice nor societal disapproval. It was a microscope. While in
training, she used a monocular scope and experienced severe
headaches and vision problems. One international authority on
ophthalmology told her to give up, that her condition could not
be cured. But a friend recommended William H. Wilmer, professor
of ophthalmology at Hopkins, who discovered the cause of her
vision problem and corrected it with eye exercises.

     Going on with her studies, Bedell Thomas became drawn to the
mysteries of streptococcal infections through the influence of
her classmate and friend, Ann Kuttner, and by the work of Rebecca
Lancefield, who was a pioneer in the identification of various
strains of the bacteria. Bedell Thomas became interested in the
relationship between streptococcal infections and acute rheumatic
fever. Such infections preceded rheumatic fever, and she
theorized that knocking out the strep infection could prevent
acute rheumatic fever, a debilitating and recurring disease that
eventually killed its young victims. She learned from colleague
Perrin H. Long of success treating beta hemolytic strep with
sulfanilamide and decided to try it with the patients in her
clinic. Treating those patients prophylactically with the drug,
she not only prevented the strep infection but the bouts of
rheumatic fever as well. Though she first announced her findings
in 1937, she was met with opposition and discouragement.

     This prophylaxis against rheumatic fever did not receive
official recognition until 1952. Despite a lack of support, she
and her unpaid staff continued to treat patients with
sulfanilamide donated by the manufacturer. In 1957, she received
the Bruce Award in Preventive Medicine from the American College
of Physicians.

     Baltimoreans are likely familiar with the Cone Collection at
the Baltimore Museum of Art. With her sister Etta, Claribel Cone
assembled the impressive collection dominated by the work of the
French Impressionists. In the 1890s Claribel took postgraduate
courses at Hopkins, studying with doctors Welch, Osler and
Flexner. While there she met Gertrude Stein (who eventually
flunked out). Legend has it that Cone typed the first draft of
Stein's book Three Lives for her friend. But in any case the
friendship influenced her, as it is Stein who has been credited
with acquainting Cone with the work of artists like Henri
Matisse. Cone, who served as president of the Women's Medical
College of Baltimore in 1903, became an expert on tuberculosis
and one of the judges at the International Tuberculosis Congress
in Washington, D.C., in 1908. She also developed such a
wide-ranging knowledge of art that she lectured frequently in

     "Art is the reflection of the spirit of the age in which we
live," she said.

     Somehow she also found time to lend her energies to a
variety of organizations including the Women's Civic League,
League of Women Voters, Baltimore Museum of Art, the Baltimore
City Medical Society and the American Association of Pathologists
and Bacteriologists.

     Ruth Bleier also did postgraduate work at the medical school
in the early 1950s. During her studies she acquired a particular
interest in neuroanatomy and in the cause of social justice and
peace. While living in Baltimore, she chaired the Maryland
Committee for Peace, with an office just a few blocks north of
Hopkins on Broadway. The committee promoted a peace ballot,
advocating the banning of atomic and bacteriological weapons and
supporting a meeting between the Soviet Union and the United
States to negotiate for a world peace. The group, which collected
signatures on the peace ballot and presented them to the U.S. and
Soviet missions at the United Nations, was labeled
communist-inspired by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Bleier later testified before that committee. And the Baltimore
City Medical Society denied her membership in 1953.

     "The ultimate irony," she told the Evening Sun, "is that my
interest in and work for peace, an effort to save human life and
prevent the barbarism of mass murder by war, should be used as
grounds to deny me membership in a medical society whose highest
dedication is the saving of life."

     Bleier became a professor at the University of Wisconsin at
Madison and there helped to found the Women's Studies Program.
She studied and published in neuroanatomy, and as a feminist,
critiqued what she felt to be bias in scientific inquiry and
research studies. In 1984, she wrote Science and Gender, a
summary of her conclusions.

     Stories of women in fields heretofore closed to them usually
emphasize the indignities suffered at the hands of prejudiced men
and women: of ill-treatment and rejection, of being socially
outcast. Dorothy Reed's relatives, for instance, were embarrassed
to tell people what she did at the medical school and lied about
her whereabouts. 

     But at a time when society recognizes Women's History Month,
emphasis should remain on the accomplishments of these women, and
on the lives they improved and saved. The lesson of their lives
is not just for women but for anyone fighting an uphill battle or
following a dream.

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