Abraham and Mary Putnam Jacobi

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Abraham and Mary Putnam Jacobi

Abraham (1830-1919) and Mary Putnam (1834-1906) Jacobi, husband and wife, were foreign-born American physicians and humanitarians who greatly improved medical care in the United States.

Abraham Jacobi was born into a poverty-stricken family in Westphalia, Germany. With work and sacrifice, he was able to begin studying medicine at the University of Greifswald in 1848. He continued at the University of Göttingen but received his medical degree from the University of Bonn in 1851. Involved in the revolutionary movement in Germany in 1848, he was a friend of Karl Marx; his outspoken support led to imprisonment, but he escaped to England, where he tried unsuccessfully to establish a practice. In 1853 Jacobi arrived in Boston. He finally settled in New York City.

First American Pediatrician

Jacobi had always been concerned about diseases of infants and children. In 1857 he became a lecturer on the pathology of infancy and childhood at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1860 he was appointed to the first chair of pediatrics at the New York Medical College. There he opened the first free clinic for children. In 1865 he held the chair of diseases of children in the medical department of the University of the City of New York. In 1870 he returned to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he taught for 32 years.

Pioneer Woman Physician

Mary Corinna Putnam, the daughter of publisher George Putnam, was born in London and at the age of 5 went to New York City with her family. She was an intelligent young woman with a zeal for learning. Those who knew her were not surprised when she decided to become a physician and to confront the almost unanimous prejudice against admitting women into the profession. She graduated in 1863 from the New York College of Pharmacy and in 1864 from the Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia.

Putnam went to Paris in 1866 and unsuccessfully attempted to enroll at the famous École de Médecine, which did not admit women. She remained in Paris studying in less well-known schools and writing articles for American journals and newspapers. In January 1868 she was admitted by special permission of the minister of public instruction to a course of lectures in the École. A few months later she was allowed to matriculate and finally took her degree in medicine in 1871 with highest honors.

Putnam returned to New York City and began teaching in the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, just opened by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and her surgeon sister, Dr. Emily Blackwell. At the same time she practiced medicine among the poor in the slums. When she applied for membership in the Medical Society of the County of New York, it was fortunate that an idealist, Abraham Jacobi, was president. She married the pediatrician in 1873, and they had two children. Her ability to diagnose and her insistence on the highest standards ranked her, with her husband, among America's great physicians.

Humanitarians and Reformers

The humanitarian concerns of the Jacobis were an important part of their lives. While other physicians were telling tuberculosis patients in the stifling slums to sleep with their heads resting on the fire escapes, Abraham Jacobi was asking why the slums must be tolerated. He joined Carl Schurz in calling for civil service reform, and his wife in advocating birth control. Mary Jacobi sought to obliterate myths and prejudices about women and urged women to show by study and scholarship that they were not inferior in scientific matters. She and the Blackwells were basically opposed to "separate but equal" medical schools and closed their own college as soon as Cornell University opened its doors to women.

Mary Jacobi's literary ability brought her Harvard's coveted Boyleston Prize (1876) for The Question of Rest for Women during Menstruation. The essay argued against the myth of incapacitation during the menses. Her humanitarianism led her to defend Native and African Americans and consumers. In 1894 she delivered a forceful address, which later became the book Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage.

In 1894 Abraham Jacobi was invited to assume the chair of pediatrics at the University of Berlin. He declined this honor, giving as his reason his firm belief in democracy. He was honored widely and was twice elected president of the American Pediatric Society and was president for one term of the Association of American Physicians, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the American Medical Association.

Mary Jacobi wrote close to 100 medical articles, as well as The Value of Life, Physiological Notes on Primary Education and the Study of Language, and Stories and Sketches; she also edited her husband's Infant Diet. She died of what she rightly diagnosed as a brain tumor in 1906.

Abraham Jacobi's eminence in American medicine made all the more tragic the fire at his home that burned his life's records, including diaries, notes, and letters, when he was in his 80s. He died in 1919. His writings were numerous; most were gathered in Collectanea Jacobi by William J. Robinson (1909). He had helped found the American Journal of Obstetrics in 1862. His monographs include The Intestinal Diseases of Infancy and Children (1887), and The Therapeutics of Infancy and Childhood (1896), which went through several editions.

Further Reading

For a good popular work on Abraham and Mary Putnam Jacobi see Rhoda Truax, The Doctors Jacobi (1952). Useful studies are Life and Letters of Mary Putnam Jacobi, edited by Ruth Putnam (1925), and Mary Putnam Jacobi, M.D.: A Pathfinder in Medicine, with Selections from Her Writings and a Complete Bibliography, edited by the Women's Medical Association of New York City (1925). □

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