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Book Reviews   |    
Mary Putnam Jacobi and the Politics of Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America

Mary Putnam Jacobi and the Politics of Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America
by Carla Bittel.; Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 328 pages, $40

Reviewed by Ellen S. More, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2011; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.62.8.982
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Copyright © 2011 by the American Psychiatric Association.

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Excepting only Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman medical graduate in the Anglo-American world, Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842–1906) was the most distinguished female American physician of the 19th century. Yet outside the world of medical history, her name is barely known today. Although Carla Bittel's erudite biography may not remedy Putnam Jacobi's obscurity among the general public (this is a book for historians of science, medicine, or women's history; for graduate students; and for physicians with an interest in the history of the profession), it represents an extraordinary scholarly achievement and sheds light on a figure who was known for her science as much as for her activism on behalf of women.

Putnam Jacobi was born into a prominent and intellectually accomplished family; her father founded the publishing house G. P. Putnam's, and Mary Putnam, as the eldest of 11 children, was expected to make her mark—an unusual attitude at a time when women were more often seen only as “helpmates.” But her choosing medicine—rather than literature, her first love—challenged even her progressive family's dedication to the creed of personal achievement. In 1860, when she began her education, not only were female physicians a rare and controversial phenomenon, but medicine itself was struggling to cast off its reputation as unsystematic and unscientific. Putnam Jacobi dedicated her career to the advancement of both women's rights and medical science; her success in creating a convergence between these two causes made her career the more remarkable. She utilized scientific experimentation, writing, and teaching to demonstrate her claims for women's capacity to be worthy physicians, scientists, and citizens.

From an early age, Putnam Jacobi invoked science to justify progressive social change, as when she rejected her family's Calvinist predestinarianism on the grounds that “new cells” are always capable of becoming something different from their parent cells. The lesson for her was that even people who inherited past sins “could be molded into better souls.” Science, therefore, formed the underpinnings of her progressive politics as well as the basis on which she composed the gender script of her life.

Not content with doctoral degrees in pharmacy (1863) or medicine (1864) from American institutions, she became the first woman to graduate from the École de Médecine in Paris in 1871. Upon her return to New York, she began practicing medicine, teaching at Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell's Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Through her scientific publications and active participation, she successfully won admission to the elite medical societies of her time. Soon after her return to New York, too, she met and married the noted pediatrician and political progressive Abraham Jacobi, with whom she had three children. Finally, Putnam Jacobi became a forceful voice for women's suffrage and women's higher education. For example, her famous essay “On the Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation” of 1876, which was awarded Harvard's Boylston Prize, described her taking a long series of pulse readings to demonstrate that women were not weakened during menstruation. Thus, contrary to Dr. Edward Clarke of Harvard, female physiology did not justify lesser opportunities for education, suffrage, or employment. Bittel has woven these strands together into a fascinating volume.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.




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