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1961: Women Storm the Gates of JMC (Or, A Tale for Women's History Month)

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Cartoon from Punch (British) magazine, 1872.

Established in 1824, Jefferson Medical College has granted 28,297 MDs to its graduating students. Although its well-deserved reputation for the latest thinking and forward pedagogical methods has always been recognized, it was not until 1961 that the medical school first admitted women students. Jefferson has the dubious distinction of being the last medical school to become coeducational (Harvard also lost its "stag rating" at that time.) Currently the student body (411 women and 497 men) roughly parallels the national average in male to female ratio for med schools, but traditions were strongly attended to at Old Jeff and the early idea that women were unfit for the manly arts of medicine was one of them.

Dean B. Howard Rand, MD, published this refutation in the 1870-71 JMC Student Catalogue.

To the Alumni of Jefferson Medical College.

The following "item" has been circulated largely in the South and West. It has only just been brought to the notice of the Faculty, and the paper in which it originally appeared is as yet unknown:--

"The Jefferson Medical College at Philadelphia has announced that hereafter it will make no distinction of sex or color, among applicants for admission to its classes."

It need hardly be said that the above is a mean and malicious falsehood, fabricated by some enemy of the school. Inasmuch as the Diploma of each graduate is depreciated in value in proportion as the above statement is believed, the Faculty trust that each Alumnus will feel interested in having a contradiction published in his local newspapers.

By order of the Faculty.

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First nine co-eds at JMC, Sept. 11, 1961. L to R, Seated: Merle G. Salerno, Bette-Lee Jarvis, Dean William Sodeman, Mary Knepp, Margaret M. Libonati. Standing: Amilu S. Martin, Carol A. Miller, Joyce E. Price, R.N., Nancy S. Szwec.

In 1873, a "young woman from a Western State presented herself...desiring to enroll" and was rebuffed by Dean John Barclay Biddle as recorded in his Introductory Lecture at the college opening session for that year when he declaimed that "Women entering medicine must be willing to subordinate love and marriage to the stern requirements of the most exacting vocation..."

The fact is that until 1961, applications from prospective women students were routinely forwarded (across town) to Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first college to grant women MDs in 1850. (WMCP became MCP, now Drexel University College of Medicine.) Although some members of the 19th century JMC faculty condemned women physicians, other Jeffersonians served on the faculty of WMCP (even the illustrious William W. Keen) and may have even championed the idea either from a liberal viewpoint (equal rights) or a Victorian conservative one (women doctors for women patients).

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Dean Sodeman and first woman med student Nancy S. Szwec (Czarnecki).

In 1869 a "Remonstrance Against the Clinical Instruction Being Given to Classes Composed of Both Sexes," was jointly published by the faculties of Jefferson and the medical department of the University of Pennsylvania, along with most of Philadelphia’s "Physicians at Large," protesting "mixed classes of male and female students of medicine." The thinking among most medical men was that if women medical students were refused access to clinics and hospital appointments, the movement would wither away. Instead, women’s medical schools established their own hospitals, foreign medical missionary services, and shared networks of education and opportunities. They also established their worth to a dubious public as physicians in private practice.

By 1918, JMC and WMCP began discussions of merger possibilities after the Jefferson faculty unanimously endorsed coeducation. In the midst of World War I, neither school took any subsequent action to realize such a merger.

The first women applicants to be accepted to Jefferson Medical College matriculated in 1961. Nancy S. Szwec was first of the nine co-eds who accepted places for that year. By the time of graduation (1965) she had married and taken the name Czarnecki, which put her alphabetically at the front of the line of women graduates. The first African American woman to attain an MD from JMC was Cora LeEthel Christian in 1971. These "pioneer" doctors have significant careers and have returned to their alma mater for many alumni events.

Other "Firsts:"

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