Doctor or Doctress?

Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians

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Hubert Work was trained as a physician and served as Secretary of the Interior under President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1928). Work wrote to Dr. Martha Tracy, the Dean of Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), in response to her letter about the lack of professional opportunities for African American woman doctors. Work commends WMCP for its admission policies and sympathizes with Tracy’s complaint about the lack of internship opportunities for African American female physicians. He explains what the reasons are for this situation and goes on to describes the status of African American doctors at the Freedman’s Hospital of Howard University in Washington, DC.

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“She Has Undertaken a Herculean Task”: Early African American Women Physicians

In the early 20th century as in the present, once medical students graduated from medical school with their degree, they were then expected to train by practicing medicine at a hospital for several years to gain clinical experience and complete their medical education. These temporary positions were then called internships (today, we call them residencies), and the hospitals provided housing for the interns for the duration of their time there. Dean Tracy had repeatedly encountered difficulty trying to find suitable internships for African American graduates of WMCP. Many hospitals would not accept them at all, and sometimes even African American-run hospitals would turn the women down in favor of giving the limited number of internships to male African American graduates. Work had appealed to the President and Congress to advocate for more support of Howard University’s training and employment of black doctors at its Freedman’s Hospital. Tracy had read about Work’s support and wrote to him about the difficult situation faced by female African American medical school graduates.

The fact that Work, a presidential cabinet member and a physician himself, recognized the growing number of African American doctors, including female doctors, and publicly supported this as a positive development, is significant. He takes the time to reply to Tracy and address her concerns, and seems sincere in his support for black women physicians. He cites the lack of appropriate housing as a reason why hospitals would not offer internship positions to female doctors. Early woman physicians often had to find their own private accommodations, or lived in nursing students’ housing.

Creator: Work, Hubert

Contributor: Tracy, Martha

Language: english

Item Number: a266_008

Pages: 2

Size: 20X26.5

Physical Collection: Records of W/MCP: Registrar 1921-1975 (ACC-266), ACC-266

Finding Aid:

Cite this source: Title of document, date. Early African-American Woman Physicians: She has undertaken a Herculean task. Doctor or Doctress?: Explore American history through the eyes of women physicians. The Legacy Center, Drexel University College of Medicine Archives & Special Collections. Philadelphia, PA. Date of access.

African American medical students

Howard University. Medical College.

Interns (Medicine)

Sex discrimination in medical education

Discrimination in medical education

Philadelphia (Pa.)

Washington (D.C.)