Sources for the History of Women in Health Care at Archives & Special Collections

The history of women in health care and the health sciences has been an ambiguous one: while women have been healers in the domestic setting for millennia, a professional role for them in health care only emerged in the mid-19th century with the development of nursing – for more than a century afterwards the exclusive domain of women. In medicine, however, it wasn’t until 1849 when Elizabeth Blackwell received her medical degree from Geneva Medical College in upstate New York that there was a formally trained female physician. And though others followed Blackwell’s path in the years to come, by 1900 only 5% of U.S. physicians were women – a number that barely increased to 6% by 1949.  After the passage of Title IX in 1972, this number began to slowly increase and by 2015 women made up 36% of the physician workforce in the US.[1]

Archives & Special Collections has several important resources for the history of women in the health sciences, both printed and manuscript. Among the most important printed sources are the digitized publications produced by Columbia’s health science schools and its affiliate hospitals, including annual reports, yearbooks, school catalogs, histories, and alumni publications.

These can be found on our Digital Historical Collections page. Of particular interest are the School of Nursing catalogs; its annual reports – found first in the annual reports of Presbyterian Hospital (1892-1958) and then in the combined Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center reports (1959-1979); and its alumni association’s magazine for which we have digital copies for 1906-1960. Also of importance are the annual reports (1894-1942) of Babies Hospital (now Children’s Hospital of New York). Founded by women in 1887, Babies Hospital long had a significant female presence in both its leadership and staff.

We also have two databases that may be of interest to researchers. The first, the obituary index for graduates of the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, contains about 10,000 death notices for VP&S graduates. The first female graduates of the College were only in 1921. The second is the database for the graduates of the Babies Hospital Special Nursing Programs which included the Training School for Nursery Maids (1892-1944) and the Post-Graduate Nurses course (1907-1932). 

We have numerous personal papers or corporate records in our manuscript collections that are by or about women. These include the papers of such Medical Center researchers as Dorothy Andersen and Hattie Alexander; nurses such as Anne Penland and Dorothy Reilly; and female-led organizations such as the Maternity Center Association and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. In addition, Archives & Special Collections has a large collection of School of Nursing records including Dean’s Office records from the mid-20th century onwards and many Babies Hospital records.

For researchers needing more information on our resources in the history of women, please feel free to contact us at

[1] Staff Care, “Women in Medicine: A Review of Changing Physician Demographics, Female Physicians by Specialty, State and Related Data,” 2015, referenced March 23, 2020:

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