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In Pursuit of a Grand Cause

Banner exhibit highlighting students and faculty of the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School

Brief History

In 1870, there were 98 medical schools across the United States. Of those, only seven accepted women. The Chicago Medical College (the predecessor of Feinberg School of Medicine) admitted three women in 1869 as an experiment in co-education. Mary H. Thompson, MD, who had entered the college for post-graduate work, was awarded an MD ad eundem in acknowledgement of her expertise. The other women, however, were dismissed from the program the following semester because male students had objected to the women’s presence in their anatomy and clinical labs.

After the co-educational failure, Thompson, along with Drs. William H. Byford and William G. Dyas, decided to address the lack of opportunities in Chicago for women to pursue formal education in medicine. In 1870, they founded the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago, which later became the Northwestern University Woman’s Medical School.

Northwestern University announced the closure of the Woman’s Medical School in January 1902 due to the school’s debts. The Board of Trustees promised to allow students to complete the academic year, but abruptly shuttered the school in March. In the years leading up to this, the deans and faculty repeatedly asked for financial and administrative assistance, but they failed to realize that their contract with Northwestern did not prescribe material support. The Trustees required the Woman’s Medical School to be self-supporting, but also controlled the school’s revenue and expenditures. They even capped enrollment when student fees would have provided much-needed income. For reasons unknown, the faculty did not attempt to fundraise outside of appeals to university leadership.

In the school’s 32-year existence, nearly 600 women earned their MDs and went on to lead successful practices, educate the next generation of women physicians, and treat underserved communities.