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Annals of Hopkins

Concrete Ceiling

 Dorothy Reed as a Hopkins medical student.
> Dorothy Reed as a Hopkins medical student.
By Janet Farrar Worthington

In 1900, when Dorothy Reed and Florence Sabin won spots at the Hospital as interns in Medicine, their male classmates told them they should give up their places.


Much has been made of the fact that the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine welcomed women right from the start. It didn't actually have a choice. Female students were the string attached to the huge donation from Mary Elizabeth Garrett and four other Baltimore ladies that allowed the School to open in 1893. Don't suppose, though, that life was a lark for those vigilant maidens who first marched the halls of Hopkins Med. Dorothy Reed, a member of the Class of 1900, described what they put up with in a journal she kept during those years. And later, when Reed and her classmate Florence Sabin went on to become the Hospital's first two female interns in Medicine, Reed also recorded the response from Hopkins ' entirely male faculty—caring for patients was not women's work.

Internships at the turn of the last century—when Reed and Sabin started theirs—were offered on the basis of academic pecking order. The top student got the first choice of specialty, and lower-down members of the class grabbed what they could from an ever-dwindling pool. Naturally, the four coveted internships in Medicine with Hopkins ' world-famous chief of Medicine, William Osler, were among the first to go. Sabin, who was fourth in the class, and Reed, who had tied for fifth, held their breath as they waited their turns. Then, both picked Medicine and were accepted. Sabin was assigned to take charge of the white women's ward, Reed the colored wards—men, women and children. It should have been a shining moment. And so it was. Briefly.

It took just days for two of Reed's male classmates—separately—to suggest to her that the politic thing to do would be to give up her place to a man. To her journal, Reed lamented, “There was apparently quite a lot of bad feeling brought about by my being given medicine.”

Undaunted, Reed reported for internship duty on Aug. 31 and ran straight into a devastated Sabin. Osler was away in England at that point, and standing in for him as head of medicine was psychiatrist Henry Hurd, the Hospital superintendent. Hurd had told Sabin that she should abandon her internship and move directly into the fellowship in anatomy she had lined up for the following year. This, he explained, would leave only one woman, Reed, on the internship roster, who would then—appropriately—be assigned the white women's ward.

Reed was furious and wouldn't hear of Sabin's giving up her place. Then, later that day, Hurd (who apparently had problems with everyone but white males) blasted her. Any woman, he declared, who actually wanted the unwomanly job of being in charge of the colored wards must have something wrong with her, he said Reed must in fact be some type of sexual deviant. She would not only bring danger to herself, but also to the white nurses whom she'd be depriving of a white man to keep the black hospital patients in check. Wrote Reed: He thought—and all my classmates and the medical staff would think—that only my desire to satisfy sexual curiosity would allow me or any woman to take charge of a male ward.

 The Class of 1900. Dorothy Reed is number 10; Florence Sabin is number 6.
> The Class of 1900. Dorothy Reed is number 10; Florence Sabin is number 6.

Mortified but unshakeable, Reed stood her ground and began her internship. But appalled at the thought that her colleagues might consider her a sex pervert, she mapped out a superhuman course for herself and clung to it through sheer grit. All that long year, she was the first to show up on the ward in the morning and the last to leave at night. She averaged three to four hours' sleep a night. “The weight of my spirit, and the fear in my heart, was put there by Dr. Hurd,” Reed wrote. “Could I acquit myself well, protect the nurses, and earn the respect of the other interns and residents?”

Reed and Sabin stuck out the year and through hard work and good doctoring silenced the demons raised by Hurd. “Something Dr. Hurd had said of a woman's being irresponsible, and not to be trusted to see things through, kept me at my post,” Reed said.  “It is not enough to work and to be industrious—but stick-to-itiveness, lasting to the last ditch is imperative.”

After their internship year, both women moved into research and went on to spectacular careers. Sabin, whose work in histology helped define the lymphatic channels and the nature of the endothelial cell, became the first woman to be named a full professor at the School of Medicine in 1917. But six months later, when the head of her department, Franklin Mall , died, Sabin wasn't even considered to replace him. The post went to one of her male students. And so, in 1925, at age 54, Sabin moved to the Rockefeller Institute in New York City and became the first woman to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Reed, meanwhile, followed her internship by accepting a $500 fellowship to work in the laboratory of pathologist William H. Welch. Within a year, she and a colleague discovered the giant cells in the lymph nodes that characterize Hodgkins disease. (Today, physicians throughout the world know those cells as Reed-Sternberg cells.)

At the end of that year, Reed asked Welch about her prospects for promotion. At first, he looked puzzled, then embarrassed. “I explained that the man who had the fellowship just before me had done no research,” Reed wrote, “but had been made an assistant in pathology the next year. Why not I?” After a moment's pause, the great Welch answered that no woman had ever held a teaching position in the School and he knew there would be great opposition to it. Not long afterward, Reed departed Hopkins .  

Sabin and Reed had broken new ground by becoming Hopkins interns, but they were outliers. Residencies and clinical faculty positions here remained almost exclusively men's jobs for decades. It wasn't until 1947, in fact, that the Department of Surgery accepted its first woman intern.


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