Skip to Main Content

In Pursuit of a Grand Cause

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

Marie J. Mergler, MD (1851-1901)

By Katie Lattal, Special Collections Librarian

Marie J. Mergler, MD graduated as valedictorian for the 1879 class of the Woman’s Hospital Medical College (later the Woman’s Medical School). She became a well-known gynecologist and was one of the top-ranked abdominal surgeons in Chicago, male or female. She taught at her alma mater, where she climbed the ranks from assistant to professor to chair of the gynecology department, and finally, to dean. She served on staff at many Chicago hospitals and became the head physician and surgeon at the Mary Thompson Hospital when Thompson passed away. 

All told, Mergler spent half of her life connected to the Woman’s Medical School. She was completely dedicated to her patients and students, so much so that she died on her 50th birthday from pernicious anemia, likely brought on by overwork and exhaustion.

Mergler was in the first group of women allowed to compete for highly-sought internships at Cook County’s medical facilities. Despite earning the highest marks and thus securing an appointment at the Cook County Insane Asylum, Mergler was denied the position as it was deemed unsuitable for a woman.


Mergler remembering the Cook County intern exam:

A crowd of students and spectators received us with deafening shouts and hisses. They clapped, they whistled, they stamped ...

The examination was fair in most of the departments. It was oral. The gynecologist and obstetrician tried to get us off the balance by making vulgar jokes. The surgeon tried to wreck us … But one point we did gain. We made our surgeon feel ashamed of his work [for not seriously educating them], and made him turn over a new leaf.

Marie Mergler, “History of the Competitive Examinations,” in Woman’s Medical School, Northwestern University (Woman's Medical College of Chicago): its Institutions and its Founder, Class Histories, 1870-1896 (Chicago: H.G. Cutler, 1896), 87-88.