Bass, Mary Elizabeth (1876–1956)

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Bass, Mary Elizabeth (1876–1956)

American physician, teacher, and chronicler of the history of women physicians in America. Born in Carley, Mississippi, in 1876; died in 1956; second of eight children of Issac Esau and Mary Eliza (Wilkes) Bass; graduated Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, M.D., 1904.

After a long, distinguished career as a pioneering woman physician and medical professor at Tulane University, Mary Elizabeth Bass made perhaps her greatest contribution by chronicling the history of women physicians in America. Her collection of thousands of documents, including over 290 monographs and 1,400 pictures and clippings, comprises the Elizabeth Bass Collection at Tulane University.

Bass was inspired to study medicine after teaching school in Mississippi and Texas during her 20s. Turned away from medical schools in the south because she was a woman, she and her sister attended the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1904, they moved to New Orleans and set up a private practice but were barred from practicing in the hospitals and clinics in New Orleans because of gender. In 1908, Bass and her sister joined five other woman physicians to found the New Orleans Hospital for Women and Children (later named the Sara Mayo Hospital). Three years later, Bass became one of the first two women appointed to an unpaid faculty position at Tulane University's School of Medicine; she was later promoted to the rank of instructor of clinical medicine.

Bass lobbied for women's rights as a member of the Equal Rights Association of New Orleans. When Tulane began accepting women medical students in 1914, she was always available to offer encouragement and friendship to her women students. She became a full professor in 1920 and remained active in national and local medical associations, including the Orleans Parish Medical Society, the Southern Medical Association, and the Medical Women's National Association. In connection with her collection of historical documents, Bass wrote a column from 1946 through 1956 called, "These Were the First," for the Journal of the American Women's Medical Association. The articles chronicled the careers of early women physicians.

In 1949, Bass retired to Mississippi to care for her ailing mother. The medical community honored her in 1953 with the Elizabeth Blackwell Centennial Medal Award. Following her death in 1956, Tulane School of Medicine set up a fund in Bass' name to provide student loans to women pursuing the study of medicine.


Bass' papers are in the Elizabeth Bass Collection on Women in Medicine of Tulane University's Matas Medical Library, and at the Sophia Smith Collection of Smith College.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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