This Week's Story

Where can you find a physician who goes to her patients day or night, begins a hospital and a medical college?

This Week’s Story relives American history and the Bible through brief inspiring stories presented on mp3 audio recordings and text for reading.

You cannot be a doctor! part five

July 8, 1852

My sister Emily and I have the same problem. We’re females and determined to be doctors. The idea horrifies many people. Emily has applied to eleven medical schools and been rejected by all of them.

Finally, I am a practicing physician in New York City. I have Quaker patients in their nice clean homes, and I serve poor patients in the Tompkins Square slum.

Many of my poor patients are so desperate that I think they would go to the Devil himself if he would offer medical services. Instead I, a tiny female, am their doctor. The women are grateful because I am of their own sex and they feel less embarrassment.

The people, mostly immigrants, live in dirty broken-down apartment buildings with cockroaches and rats. Families, often with 10 to 12 children, are crammed into apartments with two or three rooms. There are no bathrooms. I go to my patients during the day or night. I don’t bother worrying about what can happen to me as I walk past fights and men stumbling out of saloons. May God be with me.

Emily is in medical school. Often, I’ve been lonely. No more! I’ve adopted an orphan. Kitty is an irresistible Irish seven-year-old.

Marie Zakrzewska recently appeared at my door. She’s an immigrant from Germany with amazing credentials and hopes to work with me.

I told her, “Marie, you can work with me. I’ll help you learn to speak English, but then you must go to medical school.” She was startled. Why would I care about her schooling?

I shared, “We need to establish a hospital for people sick and needing food, shelter, and clothing. We must train nurses and offer women physicians’ experience and classes for after they become doctors.

We now have our hospital. Marie and Emily finished medical school. Marie is the resident physician, Emily the surgeon, and I the director of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Dr. Henry Ward Beecher spoke at the opening. The New York Times and New York Tribune wrote respectful articles.

Nasty objections come. A patient died of a ruptured appendix, and a crowd gathered outside throwing stones into our windows and shouting, “This place is run by women cranks who kill their patients with cold water!” Not until twelve rioters watched as a coroner opened the body by doing an autopsy, were they convinced that the dead man had received legitimate treatment.

The Civil War erupted in April 12,1861. We had four terrible years of blood. Thousands of soldiers were wounded and unnecessarily died because more nurses, doctors, and medications were needed. Medical care and thorough training must improve in the United States.

I spoke to the trustees of the Infirmary, “It is time to establish a medical college for women. The New York Infirmary and College opened in 1868. At the opening I spoke, “The College must be an honest and earnest attempt to give women the very highest education that modern science can afford.”

I am returning to England, where I can help begin a medical school for women.

This is Barbara Steiner in a world where medical care is challenged.

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