"Doctor, how very odd it is to hear a man called doctor!" Historical and Literary Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century U.S.-American Medicine


28. Oktober 2021 16:00 – 28. Oktober 2021 18:00


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In this seminar, we will look at the representation of female doctors in nineteenth-century U.S.-American literature and will analyze them in relation to their actual historical counterparts as well as the generally male-dominated profession. After a short overview of the situation of the medical profession in general and of women physicians in particular, we will look at excerpts from the novels listed below in order to gradually disentangle the images of women doctors. We will discover how women in medicine had to fight stereotypes and accusations that questioned their femininity, their brains, and their breach of gender norms. One eminent scholar, Edward Clarke, warned women that if they pursued higher education they would get “monstrous brains and puny bodies; abnormally active cerebration and abnormally weak digestion; flowing thought and constipated bowels.” Another, Dr. Weir S. Mitchell, claimed that “[t]o-day, the American woman is, to speak plainly, too often physically unfit for her duties as woman, and is perhaps of all civilized females the least qualified to undertake those weightier tasks which tax so heavily the nervous system of man.” Elizabeth Blackwell overcame all obstacles and was the first American woman to receive a medical degree from an American medical college in 1849. She was one of very few, but the numbers were rising in spite of all difficulties. The medical women serve as an example of those U.S.-American (and also European) women who wanted to pursue higher education despite the limitations of the prevailing gender roles that relegated women to the private sphere, as part of the “Cult of True Womanhood,” and men to the public sphere. The literary examples chosen for discussion will show us how women confronted the constraints and managed to write a new chapter in the history of medicine and gender and U.S.-American culture in general.

In addition to brief quotations from Clarke’s, Mitchell’s, and the German Dr. Paul Julius Möbius’s publications, excerpts from the following novels will be discussed:

Howells, William Dean. Dr. Breen’s Practice. 1881. N.p.: Hard Press, n.d. Print.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. A Country Doctor. 1884. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Meyer, Annie Nathan. Helen Brent, M.D. 1891. Charleston, SC: Bibliobazaar, 2008. Print.

Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. Doctor Zay. 1882. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, n.d. Print.


Prof. Dr. Carmen Birkle


Zentrum für Lehrerbildung