New-York Historical recently acquired a small set of documents related to a 19th century medical doctor, one Laura Morgan. The documents are mostly ephemera dating from the 1860s-1880s, such as admission tickets, business cards, programs. But still waters run deep and these simple fragments lie on the surface of a rich history of women pioneers attempting to enter the medical profession in the Anglo-American world.
Among the fragments in the collection are tickets acknowledging Laura Morgan as a matriculating student at the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, and admitting her to lectures there. Morgan was one of the students in the first class of the Woman’s Medical College, which opened in 1868. There were relatively few medical colleges in the United States at the time, and fewer still would admit a woman. And even with a medical degree, a woman would find herself shut out by hospitals and male doctors from gaining the practical clinical experience needed to establish themselves in the field. The Woman’s Medical College, and the New York Infirmary with which it was affiliated, were established by Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. to give women an avenue for professional success in the medical field.
Blackwell, who immigrated to America from England as a child, graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849, becoming the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree—thanks in part to a mischievous student body. When she applied to the school in 1847, the faculty put the matter up for a vote by the all-male students; as a prank they voted her in. The faculty learned its lesson and, when Elizabeth’s younger sister, Emily, later applied to Geneva, she was rejected outright. Eventually Emily was accepted to Western Reserve College where she earned her degree during a moment in time when that college accepted women as medical students. Facing difficulty in gaining entry to an established medical institution, though, the Blackwell sisters, along with another Western Reserve graduate, Marie Zakrzewska, M.D., opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1857 where they could work as doctors. Slowly gathering supporters and funding, the Blackwells created the Woman’s Medical College fifteen years later, in 1868, welcoming Laura Morgan in their first cohort.
Dr. Morgan graduated in 1870, as valedictorian in the Woman’s Medical College’s first graduating class. The details of her career are unclear, but the arc seems consistent with the challenges women doctors of the time faced. Dr. Morgan remained in New York for a time and was active at the Woman’s Medical College where she was Clinical Assistant for the Skin Clinique and served as secretary for the Alumnae Association. At some point, Dr. Morgan moved to San Francisco, where she likely practiced medicine and gave “anatomical & physiological lectures.”
In 1885, Dr. Morgan traveled to Australia where she lectured and found herself at the center of an incident emblematic of the medical profession’s global discrimination against women. Shortly after arriving she was visited in Melbourne by Dr. John Singleton, who was interested in having a woman doctor on his staff to treat women and children at the Collingwood and Fitzroy Free Medical Mission Dispensary. Dr. Morgan accepted the appointment, becoming the first practicing woman doctor in Australia. However, the male medical establishment opposed her and used the typically perfunctory process of registration with the Medical Board to challenge Dr. Morgan’s credentials. Eventually, in 1888, Dr. Morgan’s opponents not only succeeded in barring her registration, but were able to threaten her with the charge of practicing medicine without a license. Political intervention helped her avoid conviction, but was not enough to allow her to practice. In 1889, Dr. Morgan left Australia, returning to the United States, where her narrative thread ends.
The path these pioneers carved would widen, though slowly. In 1889, as Dr. Morgan sailed away from Australia, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. spoke at the London School of Medicine for Women, which she had co-founded in 1874. She credited the United States with then having 3,000 woman doctors (from one, herself, forty years earlier), creditable perhaps only in relation to England, which had only 73 “registered lady-doctors” at the time (from one, again herself, thirty years earlier). Australia, which drove out Dr. Morgan, could not hold back women’s progress forever, or even for a year; in 1890, Emma Constance Stone, M.D., who received her medical education in Pennsylvania and Canada and replaced Dr. Morgan at Dr. Singleton’s clinic, was registered as the first woman doctor in that country.
This post is by Larry Weimer, Head of Archival Processing.