Lessons from our Pupils: A Reflection [Episode 5]
In this week’s Episode (LINK), Jay was joined by Drs. Zelia Correa, Geeta Lalwani, and Ashvini Reddy for a panel discussion about the job and contract negotiation process, with a special focus on maternity and sick leave. Therefore, we thought it would be fitting to discuss some of the first female ophthalmologists in our field.
Although female physicians began to receive training following the graduation of Elizabeth Blackwell from Geneva Medical College in 1849 and the establishment of the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1850, there was still a great amount of push-back when it came to training in a surgical specialty (the AMA did not admit women until 1915). Despite these set-backs, the two first female ophthalmologists – Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows and Elizabeth Sargent – completed their training near the end of the 19th century. Both physicians spent time learning at the University of Zurich, where women studied medicine as early as 1833 and were admitted as medical students starting in 1864, and at Howard University in the United States, which was founded on similar principles in 1867.
Dr. Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows was the daughter of a family doctor, and so grew up surrounded by the medical field. After she suffered through a miscarriage and her husband died of diphtheria, she decided to pursue a medical education. However, life continued to place strains on her education, which was placed on hold as took over her second husband’s stenography job when he fell ill with typhoid fever. Finally, Dr. Barrows graduated from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. She then moved to Zurich and Vienna, where she fell in love with the eye and learned the art of cataract surgery with Professor Eduard Jaeger. After completing her training, Dr. Barrows returned to Washington, DC to purchase 100 dollars worth of ophthalmology equipment and to become the first woman to have a private practice in medicine in the city.
From a young age, Dr. Elizabeth Sargent (who was the daughter of a politician father and an activist mother) was an advocate for women’s rights and worked for the women’s suffrage. Like Dr. Barrows, she also attended Howard University before obtaining her medical degree, and she also traveled to Zurich for her training in ophthalmology. When she returned to San Francisco, Dr. Sargent continued her women’s suffrage work and began a practice in pediatric ophthalmology. She became a leader both at home and around the world, donating to keep her women and children’s hospital open and even representing the AMA’s Section on Ophthalmology at an international meeting.
Together, Drs. Barrows and Sargent helped to pave the way for future female ophthalmologists, and future female physicians in general. Although there is always progress to be made, these first steps were important and these physicians deserve particular recognition today. For more information about Drs. Barrows and Sargent, you may like to read this AAO article (LINK) by Alice R. McPherson and Daniel M. Albert, on which this text is based. We hope that you enjoyed today’s reading!