Happy 176th Birthday To Medical Pioneer And Advocate Mary Putnam Jacobi

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Jacobi was born on this day in 1842.Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In 1906, physician Mary Putnam Jacobi knew the brain tumor was going to kill her. It’s hard to imagine what she must have been feeling, but we know much of what she went through, in clinical detail, because she spent her final months documenting her symptoms in the hope that future patients could benefit from doctors having a better understanding of the disease’s progression and the patient’s experience. Shortly before her death, she published her meticulous work in “Descriptions of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum, From Which the Writer Died, Written by Herself.” It was the final installment of 120 scientific papers and 9 books Jacobi published during her prolific career as a physician, researcher, and advocate for women’s rights.

Born on August 31, 1842, Jacobi had devoted her life to medicine, which her father, the famous New York publisher George Palmer Putnam (whose grandson, as an interesting aside, would one day marry aviator Amelia Earhart), called a “repulsive pursuit.” But he funded her education despite his personal feelings about it, from her private study with Elizabeth Blackwell to the medical degree she earned in 1864. Jacobi served as a medical aide in the Civil War and spent several months as a clinical intern at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, then fought her way into the University of Paris medical school, which accepted her only grudgingly and on the condition that she would enter the classroom through a separate door and sit at the front of the class. In 1871, she graduated with honors.

She returned to New York City that year, where she opened up a private practice and took a position as a researcher and instructor at the newly-opened Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary and Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she taught until 1888. All the while, she lobbied major medical schools like Johns Hopkins to accept female students and advocated for women’s suffrage. The struggle wasn’t going terribly well in those years; even women’s basic right to higher education was a subject of intense debate, and even a few so-called allies were actively impeding pushes for equality.

For instance, physician Edward Clarke argued that women should be allowed to pursue higher education — but insisted that they could never keep up with male students because mental and physical strain during menstruation would cause “nervous collapse and sterility.” Clarke felt strongly enough about this to write a whole book, which he published in 1873. It sold out within the first week, and Jacobi set to work proving him wrong. She collected data on women’s vital signs, agility, and strength throughout their menstrual cycles. While it had taken Clarke a whole book to make his point, Jacobi needed only the length of an essay to refute him. Clarke’s alma mater, Harvard University, awarded her its prestigious Boylston Prize for the work.

It was a classic example of Jacobi’s focus on data, evidence, and rigorous application of the scientific method in medical research and practice. There, she deviated from the philosophy of her mentor, Elizabeth Blackwell, whose approach to medicine focused more on moral and social reform than on evidence-based treatments for disease; in fact, Blackwell rejected germ theory and argued against contraception and inoculations. But there seems to have been no real animosity between the two colleagues, since Blackwell joined other leading physicians of the day in speaking at Jacobi’s funeral. Jacobi died on June 10, 1906.

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