The Medical Menstrual Menace (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

The impact that Edward Clarke's book had on the debate over women's education frankly alarmed women's rights advocates on both sides of the Atlantic.  Being a Harvard professor and a medical doctor gave Clarke's arguments instant credibility and the only effective way to counter them was to find hard scientific evidence that women were far less fragile than he claimed.  

Which brings us to Mary Putnam (later Jacobi)   Born in London in 1842, she grew up in New York where she privately studied medicine with Elizabeth Blackwell.  As the daughter of George Putnam, one of the giants of American publishing, she had an early introduction to the American literary community.   Her father objected to his daughter's choice to become a medical doctor but he ultimately came around.  After serving in the U.S. Civil War as a medical aide, she eventually earned her medical degree from the Woman's Medical College in Pennsylvania.   She then went to MaryCorinnaPutnamJacobi[1]France and became the first woman to enter the Ecole de Medicine in Paris where she earned her second medical degree in 1871. 

In an unpublished autobiography written during the final years of her life, Jacobi explained that her determination to become a medical doctor began in her early childhood.  After finding a dead rat near her family home, she recalled thinking "“If I had the courage I could cut that rat open and find his heart which I greatly longed to see.”   While her mother put a stop to this early experiment in comparative anatomy, she remained determined to learn more about science as a way to protect herself from the overly-enthusiastic religious education provided by her evangelical grandmother.   She also had trouble accepting the second-class status of women in general, especially since they were routinely shut out of higher education in most universities.  Her own uphill battle to be accepted as a medical doctor was proof of that.

On returning to the United States in 1871, she went on to become probably the most important woman physician of her era.  After marrying physician Abraham Jacobi in 1873 and changing her own name, she quickly established a reputation as a serious medical researcher with publications in all of the leading medical journals.  She also became a professor at the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary and also taught at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School.   Along with helping establish the Pediatric Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, she worked at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and was a visiting physician at St. Mark's Hospital.

But Jacobi and other women physicians still had to struggle to gain popular acceptance.  Not only was it considered "unseemly" for women to have intimate knowledge of the human body, but many male physicians argued that women doctors weakened the profession due to their frail dispositions.  This is what made Edward Clarke's controversial book so damaging and the prospect of women becoming "unsexed" by medical training seemed like a compelling argument.

At the same time, there was also a fierce debate over the very nature of medicine and the role of science.  While scientist-practitioners like Jacobi stressed the importance of medical research in shaping how physicians treated their patients,   many doctors preferred to rely on a more intuitive approach.   That often caused conflicts for the male doctors treating women patients due to various misconceptions about female anatomy and how it affected patients psychologically.  It was during this era that "hysteria" became an overused diagnosis for a wide variety of psychological problems that women might experience in their lives  To treat this "condition", doctors often prescribed a bewildering variety of supposedly effective remedies, including the surgical removal of their ovaries -  an operation that led to the deaths of countless women patients.

Mary Putnam Jacobi spent her life countering this male-dominated perspective on women' health.   More importantly, she recognized the medical problems that women and children faced at a very personal level.  Jacobi and her husband had three children of whom only one survived infancy.  The pain of these losses caused them to dedicate themselves to improving child health through proper nutrition and prevention of infectious diseases.   Through the 1870s and 1880s, Mary Jacobi also dedicated herself to women's health issues.  It was during this period when she wrote her famous rebuttal to Edward Clarke's book, The Question of Rest For Women During Menstruation.  Published in 1876, her book won Harvard University's Boylston Prize and became an early classic in gynecology.   Challenging all of Clarke's arguments, Jacobi's book included her own extensive research on woman patients including statistics and medical data outlining changes in female health, strength, and emotion throughout the menstrual cycle.  Her hard evidence emphatically demonstrated that Clarke's ideas about frail women were completely false though many of her male colleagues tended to "cherry-pick" details out of her work to support their own ideas.

In many ways, Mary Putnam Jacobi was full of apparent contradictions.   An early opponent of women's suffrage, she argued instead that health and education  were more important than being able to vote (she later changed her mind though).   She also clashed publicly and often with her fellow women's rights advocates, including Elizabeth Blackwell, over the direction their movement should take in ensuring greater sexual equality.  Though Blackwell argued that women should use their female values to provide the kind of medical care that male doctors couldn't, Jacobi maintained that men and women needed to be equal in the medical care they provided patients.  While many younger women doctors openly admired her powerful presence whenever she entered the room, as well as her formidable intelligence, her temper and inability to bear fools gladly "did not always add to her popularity" as Emily Blackwell once said.

She was also an avid workaholic, only taking time off from medicine on Sunday afternoons.  Along with her grueling medical practice, she was also an dedicated researcher.   Even after being diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour, she spent her last months carefully documenting the progress of her disease which she published as "Descriptions of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum."   She died in June, 1906 survived by her husband and daughter.

Largely through the work of Mary Putnam Jacobi and other female doctors like her, more women than ever sought out medical careers.  In the United States alone, there were 7000 woman doctors  by 1900 representing five percent of all medical school graduates.    Still, arguments from critics such as Edward Clarke continued to be raised and women continued to face barriers in gaining wider acceptance by male colleagues and society in general.  

Even today, women face challenges in many professions that continue to be male-dominated.   Though the medical arguments have long since been refuted, the informal barriers can be as difficult as ever especially since women are expected to balance family life and professional work much more seamlessly than their male counterparts.  Mary Putnam Jacobi would understand that all too well.




Related Stories

  • The Medical Menstrual Menace (Part One of Two)
  • Dr. Fliess' Patient
  • A Shock to the System


The information provided on the is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979