Jacobi, Mary Putnam (1842–1906)

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Jacobi, Mary Putnam (1842–1906)

First woman admitted to the renowned École de Médecine in Paris (1868) and foremost woman physician of her era, whose career won the respect of her male colleagues and inspired many women physicians. Name variations: Mary Putnam, Minnie. Pronunciation: Ja-KOH-bee. Born Mary Corinna Putnam on August 31, 1842, in London, England; died in New York City on June 10, 1906; daughter of George Palmer Putnam (a publisher) and Victorine (Haven) Putnam; educated at home until she entered public school at age 15; graduated from the Twelfth Street School in New York City, 1859; graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy, 1863; graduated from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1864; graduated from the École de Médecine in Paris, 1871; married Dr. Abraham Jacobi, on July 22, 1873; children: Ernst (1875–1883); Marjorie Jacobi (b. 1878).


bronze medal for her thesis at the École de Médecine (1871); Boyleston Prize for a research paper, Harvard University (1876); first woman elected to membership in the New York Academy of Medicine (1880).

Family returned to New York from England (1848); had first article published in Atlantic Monthly (1860); interned at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (1864); did clinical, laboratory, and course work in Paris (1866–71); was professor of materia medica and therapeutics at the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary (1871–89); had private medical practice (1871–1902); served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Education for Women (1874–1903); was a clinical lecturer on children's diseases at the Post-Graduate Medical School (1882–85); was president of the Alumnae Association of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (1888 and 1894); helped found the Consumer's League (1890); helped found the League for Political Education (1894); was a member of the New York County Medical Society, Medical Library and Journal Association, New York Pathological Society, New York Neurological Society, Therapeutical Society of New York, New York Academy of Medicine, and Women's Medical Association of New York City (1871–1906).


over 120 articles and scientific papers in various newspapers, magazines, and medical journals (1860–1903).

In the middle of the 19th century, the medical profession in the United States was considered disreputable. Almost anyone who wished to declare himself a physician could start a medical practice, even without a college education or medical degree. New proprietary medical schools proliferated, organized by physicians who offered only the most elementary of medical courses over a period of a few months to two years. In this atmosphere of freedom from regulation, women began to enter the field of medicine, often motivated by a perception of their special role and influence in the care of women and children. Because women were generally excluded from orthodox medical colleges, they usually attended women's medical schools. The first and most prominent of these was the Female (later Woman's) Medical College of Pennsylvania, established in 1850 by Philadelphia Quakers.

If you cannot learn to act without masters, you evidently will never become the real equals of those who do.

—Mary Putnam Jacobi

When Mary Corinna Putnam arrived in Philadelphia in 1863 to attend the Female Medical College, her father George Palmer Putnam, a publisher who had always encouraged his eldest child's independence and inquiring mind, felt compelled to give her some fatherly advice. "Now Minnie," George Putnam wrote:

you know very well that I am proud of your abilities and am willing that you should apply them even to the repulsive pursuit (for so it is in spite of oneself) of Medical Science. But don't let yourself be absorbed and gobbled up in that branch of the animal kingdom ordinarily called strong-minded women! Don't let them intensify your self will and independence, for they are strong enough already. … Be a lady from the dot ting of your i's to the color of your ribbons—and if you must be a doctor and a philosopher, be an attractive and agreeable one.

Mary was fortunate to have unusually broad-minded parents, for daughters were normally expected to limit their aspirations to marriage and children. Victorine Putnam , a lively, charming woman whose life was centered on her husband and 11 children, also indulged her daughter's intellectual curiosity and independence. Taking charge of her daughter's education at home, Victorine had Mary read aloud from great works of literature and encouraged her to write stories and essays. Mary treasured the memory of the day in 1860 when her first article, "Found and Lost," was accepted by the Atlantic Monthly, and her father dropped $80 in gold pieces into her hand one by one. Her literary talent was a strong factor in her later success, for she became a prolific author of articles, lectures, and scientific papers.

When George and Victorine Putnam decided that their daughter needed a more formal education, Mary was enrolled at the Twelfth Street School in New York City, where she graduated in 1859 after two years. She then resolved to attend the New York College of Pharmacy where she could obtain a scientific background in preparation for medical school, although most women in that era had very little exposure to science before beginning medical studies. Mary's plans were postponed for several years, however, when her father persuaded her that she was needed at home to help her mother and younger siblings after the outbreak of the Civil War. During this period, Mary and one of her sisters studied the classics in private lessons with a professor from Poland, and Mary in turn taught the younger children.

Mary demonstrated her unusual self-reliance when her brother Haven, who was stationed with federal forces in New Orleans, became ill with malaria. Not yet 21 years old, she traveled on one of the federal transports to New Orleans where she lived for several months with the Holabird family. It was extraordinary that Mary's parents approved such an venture for a lone young woman, and an indication of their confidence in her.

After graduating from the New York College of Pharmacy in 1863, Mary began her studies at the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. Because her work in pharmacy and her private instruction counted toward a degree, she received her medical certificate in one year (1864) instead of the normal two. Despite her solid preparation for medical school, Mary felt ill-prepared after graduation to assume the responsibilities of patient care, and she went to Boston for a few months to obtain more clinical experience at the New England Hospital for Women and Children under the supervision of women physicians on the staff. Her experience there convinced her that she was temperamentally unsuited for private medical practice and that she preferred scientific research.

Returning to New York, she lived at home and had a small private practice while she studied chemistry with a Professor Mayer; she was his only pupil. Although George Putnam placed his son Bishop in the same laboratory, ostensibly as a chemistry student but also as a chaperon, the close collaboration of Mary and Professor Mayer ignited a romance, and Mary was soon engaged to be married. Within a short time, however, she began to have second thoughts and implored her father to help break the engagement. "I am not sure that his intellect or character are as strong as mine," she wrote. "I influence him a great deal, he scarcely influences me at all; in a word, I can manage him, and that makes him far less interesting than if he, by superior power, controlled and magnetized me." Clearly, it would take an exceptional man to capture her attention. George Putnam determined that "the whole thing must end now, once for all—and unconditionally."

Her freedom regained, Mary, like many other medical graduates of that period, decided she needed the kind of scientific training available only in the great European medical schools. She set her sights on the venerable École de Médecine in Paris, which had never admitted a woman. In September of 1866, just after her 24th birthday, she sailed for France.

With a few letters of introduction, Mary made herself at home in Paris. After taking French lessons, she felt comfortable enough to begin medical work and obtained permission to assist at several hospitals as well as attend lectures at the Jardin des Plantes and the College of France. Within two months, she wrote to her parents that she was devoting half her time to chemistry and half to medical studies, and that she had now decided medicine would take precedence after all. She saw more possibilities for success in clinical medicine than in scientific chemistry, and, even though she still felt that a purely scientific life would better suit her, she wanted to be able to help her family, the main anchor in her life.

Mary was especially devoted to her parents and grateful to them for giving her the freedom to make choices. In February 1867, she wrote her father, thanking him for "the large liberty in which you have always left me. … It would be perfectly distracting to have a man fussing and directing everything. … I should have been stifled." To her mother, she wrote of her gratitude for Victorine's example of charm and loveliness: "Thanks to your blood in my veins, I, also, am sometimes able to amuse people, which is a most valuable faculty for getting along in the world."

Mary's Parisian friends and medical associates were intrigued by this independent young American, and they occasionally interceded with authorities to open opportunities as her studies expanded. She worked with male students and interns, and her obvious competence won the respect of many male physicians. But, because she was a woman, the faculty of the École de Médecine rejected her application for admission. When she heard that the Minister of Public Instruction

was interested in the question of women physicians, Mary saw her opening. With the help of a few influential friends, she petitioned the minister and finally received permission simply to attend a course at the École. Once inside the amphitheater, she reasoned, all objections to her presence would fade, and she would eventually be accepted for a degree.

The scenario played out as she had predicted. On January 23, 1868, she began a histology course at the École, entering the room by a side door and sitting in a chair near the professor. Because most of the students knew Mary by sight from her work at other institutions, the uproar envisioned by opposing faculty members did not occur. In a triumphant letter to her parents, she wrote: "Day before yesterday, for the first time since its foundation several centuries ago, a petticoat might be seen in the august amphitheater of the École de Médecine." Even American newspapers took note of her attainment, and one article mentioned how the civility of French medical students contrasted with the boorish behavior of University of Pennsylvania medical students, who had jeered and taunted women from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania on their arrival at Penn to attend a lecture.

Thanks to the support of the Minister of Public Instruction, Mary was soon thoroughly established at the École and sanctioned as a regular student. Her American diploma was accepted for credit, and she needed only to pass a series of six examinations and write a thesis to receive a medical degree. In preparation for her first oral examination in June of 1868, she exercised tremendous mental discipline, studying intensely up to ten hours a day and repeating information aloud to ensure that her French was precise. She passed the examination with a high mark, "as telling and effective an achievement as for the moment any woman could accomplish," she noted in a letter to her parents. But her plans to obtain her degree within two years were disrupted by the Franco-Prussian war between July 1870 and May 1871.

During the period of political ferment, Mary wrote an article for Scribner's Monthly entitled "Some of the French Leaders: The Provisional Government of the Fourth of September," which was described by the magazine's editor as "one of the ablest ever printed in an American magazine." Her articles for American magazines, newspapers, and the Medical Record were a main source of income during her five years in Paris. Her writing was logical, precise, and expressive—a true reflection of her extraordinary mind.

In July of 1871, Mary finally received her medical degree from the École de Médecine. Her thesis, submitted in competition with all theses for the year, received the bronze medal. It was dedicated: "To the professor, whose name I do not know, who was the only one to vote for my admission to the school, thus protesting against the prejudice which would exclude women from advanced studies." She was the second woman to graduate, however, rather than the first. Mary's admission to the École had opened the door for Elizabeth Garrett (Anderson) , an English physician who had been in medical practice for several years. Garrett accelerated her studies and was able to graduate in 1870.

When Mary returned from Paris in September of 1871, there were only four hospitals in the United States where a woman could be an attending physician—all were women's hospitals. She chose to work at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, established in 1858 by Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell . At the same time, Mary set up an office for a private practice and began teaching materia medica and therapeutics at the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. Mary was a stimulating professor who demanded that her students have the will to learn, but she was shocked by the poor preparation of women for medical school. After her first few lectures, she was so frustrated by her students' inadequate education that she wrote to Elizabeth Blackwell in England for advice. Dr. Blackwell urged her to reacquaint herself with America now that Mary had become so thoroughly French. To adapt to American expectations, she must simplify her course in materia medica and see how she could "gradually vivify that course" rather than try to change established ways abruptly. "Do, my dear Mary," wrote Blackwell, "be very prudent and patient! You are young enough to wait for brilliant success, but you must not fail now."

Mary's path to success in the male medical establishment in New York began with her acceptance as a member of the New York County Medical Society in November of 1871, just a few months after the acceptance of Emily Blackwell, the first woman member. The president of the Society at the time was Dr. Abraham Jacobi (1830–1919), a German-Jewish physician who had been imprisoned in Germany for two years during the 1848 revolution. After his escape from prison, he made his way to New York, where he became known as an authority on the diseases of children. When he met Dr. Mary Putnam, he was a professor of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Mary and Abraham Jacobi were married on July 22, 1873. Despite the death of their first baby in 1874, the next ten years were happy and productive. While continuing her teaching, private practice, research and writing, Jacobi had two more children, Ernst in 1875 and Marjorie in 1878, and began to focus on improving women's medical education. From 1873 to 1903, she served as president of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Education for Women, which she organized in 1872. It was her conviction that standards of medical education needed to be raised for women so that they could prove themselves equal to men in the medical profession. To achieve this goal, women required access to the same classroom and clinical training that men received.

The main objections to the higher education of women were summarized in a book published in 1873 by a Harvard professor, Dr. E.H. Clarke, who contended that the stress of higher education disrupted the proper development of a woman's reproductive system. Also, he asserted, women could not be relied on in medical emergencies because menstruation incapacitated them for one week each month. When the topic for Harvard's celebrated Boyleston essay was announced—"Do women require mental and bodily rest during menstruation, and to what extent?"—several women physicians urged Jacobi to enter the competition to win credit for all women by obtaining the Boyleston prize in 1876. She sent out questionnaires to women and summarized her findings in a scientific paper submitted anonymously. Her paper won the $200 prize and refuted Clarke's arguments unequivocally.

Both Mary and Abraham Jacobi were interested in post-graduate study for physicians. When the faculty of the New York University Medical College founded the Post-Graduate Medical School in 1882 for men and women, Mary was appointed clinical lecturer on children's diseases. She also became a student once again, with a particular interest in the treatment of the mentally ill and methods of preventing insanity. She wrote Essays on Hysteria and Brain Tumors in 1888, as well as other papers on neurological subjects, an area that would later be of personal concern and eventually lead to her death.

After ten golden years, the most devastating blow of her life came in 1883 when her son Ernst died of diphtheria at the age of seven years, ten months. The children's nurse was found to have been harboring the disease. It was a bitter loss as well for Abraham Jacobi, who never really recovered from the death of his son.

Mary's interest in the rights of women expanded in the 1890s to encompass social and political issues. She helped organize the Consumer's League in 1890, which was concerned with the working conditions of saleswomen, cashiers, and other women employed in the retail stores of New York City. In 1894, she was selected to represent the women of New York City in a speech before the New York Constitutional Convention, which was considering the issue of voting rights for women. When the franchise for women was defeated, Mary Jacobi helped organize the League for Political Education and expanded her speech into a booklet entitled "Common Sense" Applied to Woman Suffrage.

Until the age of 54, Jacobi had enjoyed perfect health. During the winter of 1896, while she and her daughter were vacationing in Greece, Mary began to have brief, sharp headaches for several minutes each morning. After four years, the headaches increased in severity and duration, and she began to have other symptoms of a brain tumor. By 1902, she was forced to close her medical practice. Perfectly aware of the nature of the meningeal tumor slowly compressing her brain, she wrote one final paper in 1903, this time with herself as the subject. In it, she described the extraordinary mental clarity she had experienced throughout her life:

It seemed to me often as if I lived in a glass house on the summit of a lofty mountain where I could see in every direction an almost illimitable distance looking through an atmosphere of blue and gold. The delight I experienced in the clearness of this view was immense. On account of it I was never conscious of depression or of irritation for more than a few moments at a time. I lived in an equable golden calm as in a sunrise or sunset cloud.

Mary Jacobi died at her home in New York City three years later, on the 23rd anniversary of her son's death. By that time, many gains had been made in the status of women in the medical profession. Her male and female colleagues attributed much of this success to Mary Putnam Jacobi's efforts and example as the leading woman physician of her era in the United States.


Putnam, Ruth, ed. Life and Letters of Mary Putnam Jacobi. NY: Putnam, 1925.

Truax, Rhoda. The Doctors Jacobi. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1952.

The Women's Medical Association of New York City, ed. Mary Putnam Jacobi, M.D.: A Pathfinder in Medicine. NY: Putnam, 1925.

suggested reading:

Abram, Ruth J. "Send Us a Lady Physician": Women Doctors in America, 1835–1920. NY: W.W. Norton, 1985.

Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell. Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Walsh, Mary Roth. Doctors Wanted: No Women Need Apply: Sexual Barriers in the Medical Profession, 1835–1975. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.


Correspondence and writings located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Katherine G. Haskell , freelance writer and medical editor, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Jacobi, Mary Putnam (1842–1906)

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