Doctor or Doctress?

Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians

Pioneers in the Face of Adversity: "The Mob of ‘69"

Explore the opposition that 19th-century female medical students faced and overcame to acquire a medical education.

Today, about one-third of doctors are women. Over 150 years ago this was not the case. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850 to train women to be physicians at a time when most women and girls did not receive much, if any, formal education.


Nearly twenty years later, there was still fierce opposition to the attendance of women students at medical school clinical lectures. When the women of WMCP were finally granted permission to attend a lecture at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1869, the ensuing uproar became a defining moment in the College’s history and a turning point in the acceptance of women physicians.

The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) was established because medical schools around the country were reluctant to accept women students. WMCP was the sole women-only medical school and for many years one of the only women's medical schools in the nation and the world.

In the 19th century, (male) medical students would attend classes called clinical lectures to learn how to treat sick patients. At a clinical lecture, a doctor and patient appeared onstage in an amphitheater, the doctor described the patient’s illness or injury to the student audience, and demonstrated how to heal or fix it. Physicians presented patients with a range of illnesses, from broken legs to pneumonia and everything in between.

In 1869, the number of women medical students and doctors was still very small compared to the number of male medical students and doctors. In November of that year, a group of about 35 students from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania went to the Pennsylvania Hospital amphitheater to attend a clinical lecture also attended by several hundred male medical students. This event came to be known among students, faculty, and alumnae of WMCP as the “The Jeering Episode.”

Essential Evidence
Use these primary sources to understand the facts of this story

The Other side (clippings; scrapbooks),  1869<blockquote class="juicy-quote">“Who is this shameless heard of sexless beings who dishonor the garb of ladies [?]”</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1347/story/islandora:1718" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

The Other side (clippings; scrapbooks), 1869

“Who is this shameless heard of sexless beings who dishonor the garb of ladies [?]”

Blackguardism (clippings),  November 8, 1869<blockquote class="juicy-quote">“It was a blackguard action that deprived every man in that crowd of any claim to the title of gentleman.”</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1347/story/islandora:988" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Blackguardism (clippings), November 8, 1869

“It was a blackguard action that deprived every man in that crowd of any claim to the title of gentleman.”

What Did She Say? (manuscript), circa 1870<blockquote class="juicy-quote">“But if those poor fellows sought to do us a lifelong favor they could not have done it more effectively than they did in their conduct towards us…”</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1347/story/islandora:990" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

What Did She Say? (manuscript), circa 1870

“But if those poor fellows sought to do us a lifelong favor they could not have done it more effectively than they did in their conduct towards us…”

Current Topics of the Town: A Pioneer in the Medical Education of Women Describes Student Battles Once Waged about Them (clippings scrapbooks), circa 1926<blockquote class="juicy-quote">“The present generation should be given to know what such women have done for all other women.”</blockquote><div class="view-evidence"><a href="http://doctordoctress.org/islandora/object/islandora:1347/story/islandora:1843" class="btn btn-primary custom-colorbox-load"><span class="glyphicon glyphicon-search"></span> Evidence</a></div>

Current Topics of the Town: A Pioneer in the Medical Education of Women Describes Student Battles Once Waged about Them (clippings scrapbooks), circa 1926

“The present generation should be given to know what such women have done for all other women.”

Related Primary Sources

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Consider these questions

  • Teaching Guide for this story »

  • Why were male medical students so strongly opposed to women being present at clinical lectures? Were male students’ actions intended to voice disapproval of women’s presence, to intimidate and discourage the female students, or to disrupt their learning? All of these?
  • What effect did the newspaper publicity surrounding this event have on public opinion?
  • Do you think women today have achieved equality of educational and professional opportunity in the medical field? In other fields? Why or why not? How do institutions that specifically serve historically under-served groups (i.e., women’s colleges, historically black universities, etc.) impact societal change?
  • Describe a time when you felt unwelcome because of your gender/identity. Can you draw parallels from your experience to this incident in 1869?