The Knowledge Center, A.C. Long Health Sciences Library, Hammer Building

Oct. 4, 2017 – Jan. 12, 2018

One hundred years this Fall, the College of Physicians and Surgeons admitted its first female students – eleven out of a class of 213.  A small exhibit in the A.C. Long Health Sciences Library’s Knowledge Center in the Hammer Building, commemorates this significant centennial.

Although women have held the roles of healers, midwives, nurses, herbalists, and family caregivers for millennia, Western medicine excluded women from attaining the education and authority to practice medicine as certified physicians.  In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive the MD in the United States, after which the profession very slowly began to open to women. 

The College of Physicians & Surgeons was not among these pioneers. The 1891 agreement whereby P&S was fully integrated into Columbia University included the provision that only the medical faculty could decide when to open the school to female students. 

When the decision for coeducation came in 1917 it was surprisingly quick and uncontroversial: significantly there is almost no discussion in the faculty minutes about it.  Several strong-willed women, notably Barnard College students Gulli Lindh and Susanna Haigh and their dean, Virginia Gildersleeve, successfully lobbied P&S dean Samuel Lambert to admit 11 female first year students.  His only condition was for them to raise the funds to construct bathrooms and locker rooms for women in the medical school building, then on West 59th St.  The sum of $50,000 – about a $1 million in today’s money – was raised by the end of 1917 largely through a donation from a “Texas gentleman” whose identity is still unknown. 

Six of the 11 students would graduate in 1921 with women holding the 1st, 3rd, and 5th places in the class.

Among the documents on display in the exhibit are Gulli Lindh’s admissions application; a classroom photo of six of the first eleven women to be admitted; a 1917 letter from Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler urging P&S Dean Samuel Lambert to settle “the women question” at the medical school; and a 1925 survey of the career paths of the early female graduates.

The Knowledge Center is accessible 24/7 to anyone with a valid CUMC ID.  For those with Columbia University or New York-Presbyterian Hospital IDs, access is available only during Service Hours. Check the Health Sciences Library website for details: http://library.cumc.columbia.edu/hours