Mendenhall, Dorothy Reed (1874–1964)

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Mendenhall, Dorothy Reed (1874–1964)

American physician and pioneer in women's and children's health care. Born Dorothy Reed on September 22, 1874 (some sources cite 1875), in Columbus, Ohio; died on July 31, 1964, in Chester, Connecticut; daughter of William Pratt Reed (a shoe manufacturer) and Grace (Kimball) Reed; Smith College, B.L., 1895; Johns Hopkins Medical School, M.D., 1900; married Charles Elwood Mendenhall (a physics professor), on February 14, 1906; children: Margaret (b. 1907, died shortly after birth); Richard (1908–1910); Thomas Corwin (b. 1910); John Talcott (b. 1912).

Made first trip to Europe (1887); entered Smith College (1891); made important discovery in Hodgkin's disease research (c. 1901); joined staff of New York Babies Hospital (1903); moved to Wisconsin (c. 1906); joined faculty of University of Wisconsin–Madison (1914); became medical officer for U.S. Children's Bureau (1917); represented United States at International Child Welfare Conference (1919); conducted study of childbirth practices in United States and Denmark (1926–29).

Selected writings:

Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children (1918); (contributed six chapters) Child Care and Child Welfare: Outlines for Study (1921); Midwifery in Denmark (1929).

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall made exceptional advances in the field of women's and children's medicine in an era when few of her gender were able to surmount the obstacles and prejudices toward women entering the scientific professions. Mendenhall was born in 1874 in Columbus, Ohio; her father, a shoe manufacturer, died when she was near the age of six. She was taught at home by her grandmother, spent summers with her mother's relatives in New York State, and often traveled to Europe. In her teen years, she was taught by a governess both at home and in Germany. Planning to become a journalist, Mendenhall enrolled in Smith College, but by the time she graduated in 1895 she had developed a fascination with the natural sciences. She applied to Johns Hopkins Medical School, and entered in 1896 after taking extra science courses at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She and another female Johns Hopkins student, Margaret Long , became the first women to work at a U.S. naval hospital when they were posted to the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital in 1898.

Mendenhall graduated with her M.D. in 1900, and received a fellowship in pathology at Johns Hopkins the following year. In this line of work she assisted in autopsies, taught bacteriology classes, and researched Hodgkin's disease. At the time, the affliction was considered a version of the infectious bacterial disease tuberculosis, but Mendenhall's findings proved conclusively that it was not (it is a form of cancer affecting the lymphatic system). She was the object of international scientific attention as a result, and the cell she discovered that is present in the blood of Hodgkin's sufferers was named the Reed-Sternberg or Sternberg-Reed cell in her honor. She declined the reappointment Johns Hopkins offered her to protest the lack of opportunities for women at the school. In 1902, she took a residency at New York Infirmary for Women and Children and the following year became the New York Babies Hospital's first resident doctor. She continued in this post until her 1906 marriage to Charles Elwood Mendenhall, a professor of physics. With him, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and began a family.

Even Mendenhall's knowledge of medicine could not prevent her from becoming a victim of the gross abuses endemic to women's health care during this era: in 1907, her first child died just a few hours after birth as a result of medical malpractice that also left Mendenhall suffering from puerperal fever and injuries. Her second child, born in 1908, died two years later after a fall. After the birth of two more sons, she returned to work in 1914, when she became a home economics lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She also began conducting research into infant mortality, lectured new and expectant mothers on health care, and wrote informational bulletins. In 1915, she coordinated several government and volunteer resources to set up the state of Wisconsin's first infant welfare clinic, in Madison. For the next two decades, Mendenhall supervised this clinic and four more like it in the city; by 1937, the city could boast the lowest infant mortality rate in the country.

Around the time of World War I, Mendenhall served as a medical officer for the U.S. Children's Bureau, and traveled overseas after the end of the conflict to study war orphanages in Belgium and France. She was also a key player in a comprehensive statistical survey of the height and weight of all U.S. children under the age of six. The collected data was used to formulate growth-measurement norms, and the findings also helped to call attention to malnutrition. Mendenhall wrote several educational publications on these matters for the American Red Cross and for various government agencies, including 1918's Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children, and six chapters included in Child Care and Child Welfare: Outlines for Study, published by the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1921. She also undertook a three-year study of childbirth practices in the U.S. and Denmark, and concluded in her 1929 work Midwifery in Denmark that Denmark's mortality rate for infants and mothers was lower due to the holdover practice of midwives, in contrast to the American system, in which male medical professionals had helped to bring about laws that banned midwifery as illegal medical practice in the 19th century.

After Mendenhall's husband died in 1935, she traveled extensively in Central America and Mexico, and spent her remaining years in Tryon, North Carolina. She died in July 1964 in Connecticut. Her surviving family—two sons, one of whom became president of Smith College and another who followed in his mother's footsteps and became a doctor—established the Dorothy Reed Mendenhall Scholarship for a deserving female medical student at Johns Hopkins University. Sabin-Reed Hall at Smith College was dedicated in honor of Florence Sabin and Dorothy Reed Mendenhall in 1965.


Read, Phyllis J. and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Mendenhall, Dorothy Reed (1874–1964)

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