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Van Hoosen, Bertha (1863–1952)

Van Hoosen, Bertha (1863–1952)

American surgeon, cofounder and first president of the American Medical Women's Association, who was the first woman to head a medical division of a coeducational university. Born on March 26, 1863, in Stony Creek, Michigan; died of a stroke on June 7, 1952, in Romeo, Michigan; daughter of Joshua Van Hoosen (a homesteader) and Sarah Ann (Taylor) Van Hoosen (a teacher); University of Michigan, A.B., 1884, medical degree, 1888; additional medical training in Detroit and Kalamazoo, Michigan, and in Boston.

Was an instructor of medicine, Women's Medical School of Northwestern University (1888–1902); established private practice in Chicago (1892); was a professor at University of Illinois College of Medicine (1902–12); became chief of gynecological staff of Cook County Hospital, Chicago (1913), then chief of obstetrical staff (1920); cofounded and was first president of the American Medical Women's Association (1915); was a professor and head of obstetrics, Loyola University (1918–37).

Bertha Van Hoosen was born on a farm in Michigan in 1863 and attended local schools there. She followed her older sister into literature studies at the University of Michigan, and after graduating decided to become a doctor. Her parents did not support her decision to go into medicine; her mother objected, and her father refused to finance her training. Undeterred, she paid her own way by doing obstetrical nursing, demonstrating classroom anatomy, and teaching. She received her medical training at the University of Michigan and, following graduation in 1888, spent four years in clinical residence at the Woman's Hospital in Detroit, the Kalamazoo (Michigan) State Hospital for the Insane, and the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston.

Van Hoosen opened a private practice in Chicago in 1892, which she kept afloat by teaching embryology and anatomy at the Woman's Medical School of Northwestern University. Her reputation as a skilled physician gradually overcame negative reactions to her gender, and within five years her practice was flourishing. She taught at the Illinois University Medical School from 1902 to 1912, despite the fact that many other professors objected to working with a woman. From 1918 to 1937, she was professor and head of obstetrics at Loyola University, making her the first woman to head a medical division of a coeducational university. An attending physician at several hospitals in Chicago, she became chief of gynecological staff at Cook County Hospital in 1913, the first time a woman physician received a civilservice appointment. In 1920, she became chief of the obstetrical staff there.

Throughout her life, Van Hoosen, who was particularly interested in women's health, treated mostly women and children. She worked to develop better methods of prenatal care and established the first human breast-milk bank in Chicago. Over the objections of male doctors who considered anaesthesia during childbirth unsafe, Van Hoosen pioneered the use of scopalamine-morphine, which allowed the patient to remain semiconscious. By 1908, she had delivered 2,000 healthy babies with minimal pain to their mothers. She published her research in three articles, including Scopalamine-Morphine Anaesthesia (1915). An excellent surgeon who often performed surgeries for other women physicians, Van Hoosen gained recognition in the mid-1940s for her ability to perform appendectomies through incisions less than a half-inch in length.

During her career, Van Hoosen trained more than 20 female surgeons, her "surgical daughters," many of whom later worked as missionaries in China. However, because of her gender, she was prohibited from joining the Chicago Gynecological and Obstetrical Society and was isolated at American Medical Association meetings. In response, she formed the American Medical Women's Association in 1915 and served as its first president. Although she fought for the right of women physicians to serve in the armed forces during World War I, she was unsuccessful in this campaign.

Van Hoosen wrote an autobiography, Petticoat Surgeon, in 1947. She performed her last operation at the age of 88 and practiced medicine nearly until her death from a stroke in 1952.


Bailey, Brooke. The Remarkable Lives of 100 Women Healers and Scientists. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1994.

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.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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