Looking Back & Forward: Living History on International Women’s Day

The women of BUSM, past and present. International Women’s Day is Friday, March 8.

To say that the goals of the Boston Female Medical School were ambitious would be an understatement. Created during the mid-19th century when public support was almost nonexistent and a majority of physicians in Boston were especially opposed to its inception, the school, which was later renamed the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) and eventually Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), opened and became the first women’s medical school in the world.

The 1840s and ‘50s were periods of social and cultural upheaval. Women’s roles were evolving and just four months before the first students of the NEFMC gathered for classes, the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY, took place in July 1848. These feminists saw the admittance of women to the field of medicine as a part of their movement and supported the creation of the school. It was widely believed women were not suited to receive an education and the generally accepted consensus was that women simply couldn’t be doctors. The matriculation of 12 women into NEFMC symbolized much more than their ability to earn a medical degree. It was a strong statement showing that women could control their bodies and medical care.

In March 1854, four women from the inaugural class received their Doctor of Medicine degrees from NEFMC. Most of the women who attended the school’s initial phase were preparing only for the practice of midwifery. The four who planned to become physicians became the first women ever to receive an MD degree from a Massachusetts institution. Two of those graduates were married to physicians and one of the two, Martha Nichols Thurston, MD, was practicing medicine a year and a half later with her husband in San Francisco. Dr. Thurston became the first woman physician in California.

By 1858, the trustees of NEFMC became intent on finding a woman to hire as a professor. They eventually hired Dr. Marie Elizabeth Zakrzewska, also known as “Dr. Zak.” Born into a Polish family of high standing, living in Berlin, Dr. Zak emigrated to the United States in 1853 after training in the royal school for midwives. She settled in New York City where she met Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. Dr. Blackwell invited her to come work in her free dispensary. Eventually, Dr. Blackwell and her sister helped Dr. Zak win admission to Case Western Reserve Medical College in Cleveland. While visiting Boston, Dr. Zak met several prominent feminists and other friends of the NEFMC and in 1858, she was offered the role of director of the small hospital that had been established as part of the school. In March 1859, Dr. Zak was appointed professor of obstetrics and diseases of women and children. During the same year, Harriet Beecher Stowe, an American abolitionist and author, became a lifetime member of NEFMC’s Board of Lady Managers.

Another notable alumna of the school, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, became the first African-American woman in the U.S. to earn an MD degree in 1864. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, Dr. Crumpler practiced in Boston before moving to Richmond, Va., which she felt would be, “…a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children.” She continued to write in her Book of Medical Discourses (1883) that, “During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor.”

Over 25 years, NEFMC continued to provide classes to more than 300 women and awarded 98 women doctoral degrees. However, the school faced serious financial issues. In 1874, legislation was passed and executed by the Massachusetts governor so that NEFMC could cease its formal existence. Boston University took control of the school’s powers, rights and property. This represented the fulfillment of BU’s vision for having branches of law, medicine and theology within the university.

BUSM’s community continued to grow and include talented women who had a real impact on students. One of the best known was Registrar Ann Gowing who in reality served as assistant dean in charge of student affairs during the 1960s, held that position for 10 years. William R. Grace, Student Council President of the BUSM graduating class of 1969, said at Mrs. Gowing’s farewell party, “She was the tireless and effective heart of student success both in the medical school and after it. The students of Boston University School of Medicine have lost a guiding hand and dear friend.”

With the passing of decades came new opportunities for women at BUSM. After Dr. R. Knight Steel was appointed to head the World Health Organization’s program on the elderly, Dr. Patricia Barry, an associate professor who served as a physician for BU’s Home Medical Service from 1984-87, became Chief of Geriatrics and Director of the Gerontology Center, which since closed in 2005.  

As BUSM made its way into the 20th century, the school continued to make strides related to women’s health and contributions to the medical field. From 1993-94, BUSM faculty members started building a new research program in women’s health. The original group, led by Gail E. Sonenshein, PhD, and Marianne N. Prout, MD, turned into a working group of 200 investigators from all areas of the School. By the mid-1990s, multiple research and training grants in the area of breast cancer had been funded and in 1997, BUSM was awarded one of seven federal grants to establish a Center of Excellence in Women’s Health.

Since Drs. Thurston and Crumpler received their degrees, BUSM’s women alumnae have continued to distinguish themselves. After graduating from BUSM in 1994, Dr. Monica Bharel completed her chief residency in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital/Boston Medical Center (BMC). Now the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, she serves as the Commonwealth’s chief physician and helps lead the state’s aggressive response to the opioid crisis.

After graduating from BUSM in 1998, Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, MD, completed her residency in pathology at Johns Hopkins University where she pioneered a program that empowered patients at the end of their lives to contribute to cancer research through organ donations. Dr. Iacobuzio-Donahue now is an internationally recognized scientist whose focus on how genetic mutations can drive metastasis and treatment resistance in cancer has led to significant advances and publications.

Today, BUMC Provost and BUSM Dean Karen Antman, MD, leads the Medical Campus and the School of Medicine and is the first woman in the University’s history to hold these positions. In 2017, Jennifer F. Tseng, MD, MPH, became the first woman appointed chief and chair of surgery at a Boston academic medical center when she was appointed Chief of Surgery at BMC and James Utley Professor and Chair of Surgery at BUSM.

There are 1,246 women faculty members, including full-time, part-time, emeritus, affiliate and voluntary.

These women, arranged alphabetically by last name, currently hold leadership roles at the School:

  • Rhoda M. Alani, MD, Herbert Mescon Chair, Dermatology
  • Tracy A. Battaglia, MD, Director, Center of Excellence in Women’s Health
  • Catherine E. Costello, PhD, William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and Director, Center for Biomedical Mass Spectrometry
  • Ellen J. DiFiore, Registrar
  • Priya S. Garg, MD, Associate Dean, Medical Education
  • Kristen H. Goodell, MD, Associate Dean, Admissions
  • Linda E. Hyman, PhD, Associate Provost, Graduate Medical Sciences
  • Angela H. Jackson, MD, Associate Dean, Student Affairs
  • Aviva Lee-Parritz, MD, Chair, Obstetrics & Gynecology
  • Jennifer I. Luebke, PhD, Chair ad interim, Anatomy & Neurobiology
  • Suzanne Maselli, Assistant Dean, Development
  • Maria Ober, Assistant Dean, Communications
  • Julie Palmer, ScD, Co-Director, BU-BMC Cancer Center and Associate Director, Slone Epidemiology Center
  • Hee-Young Park, PhD, Associate Dean, Faculty Affairs and Chair, Medical Sciences & Education
  • Jean E. Ramsey, MD, Associate Dean, Alumni Affairs
  • Chelsea L. Rathbun, MBA, Director, Proposal Development
  • Flora Sam, MD, Director ad interim, Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute
  • Vaishali Sanchorawala, MBBS, Director, Amyloidosis Center
  • Maria Trojanowska, PhD, Director, Arthritis Center
  • Minh-Tam Truong, MBBS, Chair, Radiation Oncology
  • Jennifer Tseng, MD, MPH, James Utley Professor and Chair, Surgery

Most recently in January 2019, Marcelle Willock, MD, former Professor and Chair of Anesthesiology, was named Professor Emerita. She is the first African-American woman to achieve this status at BUSM. It was Leah Lowenstein, MD, a former Professor and Associate Dean at the School, who inspired Dr. Willock to apply for the position. Dr. Lowenstein, who joined BUSM’s faculty in 1968 and was named an associate dean in 1979, later joined what is now the Sidney Kimmel Medical College, becoming the first female Dean of a co-ed medical school in the U.S.

Through all of these accomplishments, BUSM continues to show the effectiveness women can and continue to bring to medicine and science every day. Their strides have arguably helped pave the way for current women medical students with dreams of entering the field. Today, 52 percent of currently enrolled medical students at BUSM are women. However, women comprise only 35 percent of physicians in the U.S., according to October 2018 data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. And according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, women only accounted for 16 percent of all permanent deanships at fully accredited medical schools in 2018.

It’s clear there is still more that needs to be done to achieve gender equity within the field of medicine. However, each of the steps that have brought BUSM to where it is now give hope this will be achieved in the future. In a world that continuously said “no” to women seeking medical education, BUSM said “yes” and made history. On the day Dr. Willock received her certificate as the first African-American woman to be named Professor Emerita at BUSM, Rafael Ortega, MD, Associate Dean of Diversity & Inclusion, told her, “You are living history.”

Whether through appointments or ground-breaking research, BUSM’s legacy of history-making women continues to live through today. 

Historical Information taken from Generations: A History of Boston University School of Medicine, 1848-1998, by Owen J. McNamara, which was published to honor the School’s sesquicentennial; Front & Center: June 1969 v.3, no. 4, 1969-06, from Boston University Medical Center; and Midwife, Doctor, or Doctress?: The New England Female Medical College and Women’s Place in Nineteenth-century Medicine and Society, 2002, by Martha Gardner.