Erxleben, Dorothea (1715–1762)

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Erxleben, Dorothea (1715–1762)

German physician who was the first woman in Germany to be awarded an M.D. degree. Name variations: Dorothea von Erxleben; Dorothea Leporin-Erxleben. Born Dorothea Christiane Leporin in Quedlinburg, on November 13, 1715; died in Quedlinburg on June 13, 1762; daughter of Christian Polycarp Leporin (1689–1747, a physician) and Anna Sophia (Meinecke) Leporin; sister of Christian Poly-carp Leporin; received her medical degree in 1754 and successfully practiced medicine in Quedlinburg until her death; married Johann Christian Erxleben; children: two daughters and two sons, including the noted physician Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben (1744–1777), as well as five stepchildren.

Born in 1715 in the city of Quedlinburg, Dorothea Christiane Leporin grew up in a middle-class domestic environment that was remarkably liberal for its time and place. Her father, the physician Christian Polycarp Leporin (1689–1747), was open to the new ideas of the Enlightenment that were then sweeping through Europe's educated classes. The Leporin family embodied the virtues of Germany's Bürgertum, whose bourgeois ideals emphasized hard work, personal responsibility, thrift and education. Dorothea's mother, Anna Sophia Leporin (1680–1757), was descended from one of Quedlinburg's most respected families, with her father being the city's leading Lutheran pastor. Dorothea's father believed strongly that both his daughter and his son Christian Polycarp Leporin should be exposed to the best possible education available in Quedlinburg. Both children took Latin lessons from the local Lutheran pastor, and at home they were instructed by their father in the medical arts, both theoretical and practical.

Dorothea Leporin showed great intellectual gifts and systematically studied medicine along with her brother Christian, who planned to enter the newly founded University of Halle/Saale. The siblings were strongly encouraged in their career plans by a liberal father who saw no reason why his daughter, or indeed any talented young woman, could not choose medicine as a calling. Her plans were delayed but not stopped when Christian had to report for military service. Upon his return in 1740, Christian prepared to enter the University of Halle/Saale, and thereupon Dorothea petitioned Prussia's king, Frederick II, for permission to accompany him and study for a degree. The young sovereign, eventually to be known as Frederick the Great and already regarding himself as an enlightened ruler, approved the April 1741 positive recommendation of the Royal Department for Intellectual Affairs that both Christian and Dorothea Leporin be permitted to enroll for university studies in Halle/Saale.

Dorothea's admission to the university was met with a mixture of angry indignation and warm support. Critics of her admission to the portals of an institution of higher education included one Johann Rhetius, who argued that women were forbidden by law to practice medicine and thus there was no point in their earning university degrees even if one individual might in

fact be able to do so. Dorothea followed the debate on women's education carefully and assembled notes on the issue for her own use, but apparently had no intention of entering into the controversy personally. When her father discovered her notes, he was so impressed by her arguments that he insisted that the work be completed and marketed. Published in 1742, her book, A Thorough Inquiry into the Causes Preventing the Female Sex from Studying, advanced a strong case for a nation to take advantage of the talents of its women, who represented a great untapped source of energy and experience. Dorothea Leporin's father wrote a long introduction to the Inquiry, arguing that Germany's universities were greatly in need of reform, and that the admittance of a pool of talented women to study at them would accelerate that longoverdue change.

Many were surprised in 1742 when Dorothea Leporin decided not to immediately enroll for university studies but instead get married. That year, she wed Johann Christian Erxleben (1697–1759), a respected Quedlinburg Lutheran deacon. A widower, Johann Erxleben brought five children into his marriage with his bride of 26. Over the next years, Dorothea gave birth to two daughters and two sons. One of her sons, Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben (1744–1777), became a highly respected professor at the University of Göttingen where he taught physics and wrote a number of textbooks that were popular in Central Europe for many decades. Dorothea's marriage was a happy one, and she was kept busy at home raising not only her own four children but the five her husband had brought with him into their union. She never abandoned her goal of becoming a physician and was able to ration her time sufficiently to continue her medical studies, albeit at a reduced pace.

Unforeseen problems, however, slowed her progress toward a medical degree. In 1747, her father died, leaving the Leporin family with considerable debts. Her husband's health also deteriorated, and the bulk of responsibilities for her large family now fell on her shoulders. Refusing to become discouraged, she regularly practiced medicine in Quedlinburg without a degree, highly respected by her patients and the great majority of the town's citizens. Her popularity, however, angered some of the local physicians who looked upon her success not only in legal but economic terms, threatening their medical monopoly.

In 1753, three local doctors filed a law suit against Erxleben, charging her with medical quackery (medicinischen Pfuscherey). Showing great self-confidence, she responded to the legal challenge by answering to the several charges made against her. These included charges that 1) she allowed herself to be called "Frau Doctorin", 2) she often visited patients, and 3) she sometimes accepted money for her services. She responded to these accusations by asserting that 1) her accusers had "never brought forward anyone who called me [Frau Doctorin], or heard someone call me that, without being severely reprimanded," 2) she did not deny that she often visited patients, but she did not go to them in secret, and 3) she admitted to sometimes accepting payment for her services but also stated that "with God's help I cured people who gave me nothing but their best wishes. Would my gentlemen adversaries have me deny help to the poor?" Refusing to be cowed by the medical establishment of her city, Erxleben fought back in a 16-page letter, calling their accusations "gross insults to truth" and concluding her defense by offering to take a qualifying examination—on condition that her accusers also take the same examination.

The outraged physicians refused to take any examination and raised the ante in the ongoing controversy by calling on officials to try her for malpractice (one of her many patients had died), throwing more fuel on the fire by accusing Erxleben of being a witch because she had treated a patient she had not met face to face. She was also described as "a dear lady [who] considers herself a doctor, only by virtue of the fact that she can toss around some broken Latin and French." Not surprising was the emphasis on her sex. Not only was she a woman lacking in sufficient intelligence for the practice of medicine, but her many pregnancies (she was again pregnant at the time) also should be regarded as an impediment to a successful practice of the medical arts.

Her pregnancy brought about a delay in the case, but in January 1754 the matter came before Frederick the Great. The sympathetic king gave his nod of approval to the solution of the matter, namely that Erxleben would have to take an examination and submit a dissertation at the University of Halle/Saale. Fortunately the university's rector, Dr. Johann Junker, believed in the value of higher education for women and was able to advance sufficiently strong historical and legal arguments in favor of allowing Dorothea Erxleben to sit for a medical degree. The rector believed strongly that in respect to academic degrees, no legal distinction was to be made between the sexes, and that any exclusions in this field represented "an inexcusable injustice." Rector Junker was doubtless also aware of the fact that his own institution had already seen fit to award honorary degrees to women poets, and he probably had heard that Erxleben's hometown of Quedlinburg already boasted of one of Germany's very few woman lawyers, a Dr. Siegelin .

With Rector Junker's full support, Dorothea Erxleben requested to sit for final examinations and submitted her "medical inaugural dissertation," entitled Concerning the Swift and Pleasant but for that Reason less than Full Cure of Illnesses. In this thought-provoking work, she argued that doctors too often were responsible for undertaking unnecessary cures, partly because some physicians intervened too quickly and some patients as well were too eager for immediate relief of minor problems that could be treated with less (or more appropriate) medications. She made a number of suggestions including proper use of purgatives, the best interventions to promote urination or menstruation, and the correct usage of opiates. Word of the usefulness of Erxleben's dissertation quickly spread throughout Germany, particularly among women with health problems, and she eventually would translate it from Latin into German to make it more accessible to the afflicted.

Dorothea Erxleben's doctoral examination took place on May 6, 1754. Answering her examiners in Latin, she responded with both accuracy and eloquence, more than satisfying the committee. Rector Junker commented on her performance by noting, "sich männlich erwiesen," that she "proved herself a man."

After many years of study, Erxleben finally was awarded the M.D. degree on June 12, 1754, by the dean of the medical faculty of the University of Halle/Saale, thus becoming the first woman in Germany to receive a medical degree and to have the right to practice as a physician. A public celebration took place in Halle/Saale that day, and in her speech marking her final triumph she affected the modesty deemed proper for women of the day: "My powers are limited, and I lack the art of well-turned phrases, even on this unusual occasion…. I feel all of my weak nesses, not only those which affect all people, but especially those to which the weaker sex is accustomed." At the same time, however, she also gave at least a glimpse of her other, perhaps even more authentic side, namely her confidence in her own talents and skills as a physician, enumerating her accomplishments as a healer "without arrogance but also without fear."

The remainder of Dorothea Erxleben's life and medical career was both uneventful and successful. Enjoying support from her large family and great respect from the townspeople of Quedlinburg, she practiced medicine there until her death on June 13, 1762. The life of Dorothea Erxleben is well known in Germany, where on September 17, 1987, the German Federal Post Office issued a 60 pfennig postage stamp honoring her as part of its ongoing definitive stamp series "The Women of German History."


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John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia