Vögtlin, Marie (1845–1916)
Vögtlin, Marie (1845–1916)
Swiss medical pioneer, the first woman in Switzerland to earn a medical degree, who established a successful career as a gynecologist and served as director of the pediatric division of Zurich's Swiss Nurses' School . Name variations: Marie Heim-Vögtlin; Marie Vogtlin or Marie Voegtlin. Born in Bözen, Canton Aargau, Switzerland, on October 7, 1845; died in Zurich on November 7, 1916; daughter of a minister; married Albert Heim (1849–1937, a geologist), in 1876; children: daughter Helene; son Arnold; (foster daughter) Hanneli.
Marie Vögtlin played a key role in pioneering women's educational and professional rights. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Vögtlin and six other female medical students—Nadezhda Suslova and Maria Bokova (Russian), Louisa Atkins and Elizabeth Morgan (English), Eliza Walker (Scottish), and Susan Dimock (American)—completed their studies at the University of Zurich with distinction. By impressing the allmale faculty with their abilities, the women were able to influence a world that had hitherto regarded women's potential to benefit from higher education, particularly medical education, with skepticism if not outright hostility.
Although a handful of American women, including Elizabeth Blackwell , had been able to receive medical degrees in the 1840s and 1850s, the institutions from which they graduated did not compare favorably to European universities of the day. It was in Switzerland, specifically in Zurich, that medical coeducation on a world-class level would be realized for the first time. Starting in the late 1860s, women began to study medicine side-by-side with men. After the graduation of that small band of pioneers in the early 1870s, dozens and soon hundreds of new enrollments of women followed. Ultimately, Zurich's medical school would be able to boast of the largest number of female medical students anywhere in the world before 1914. Along with Paris, which soon followed the Swiss example, the universities of Switzerland (Bern, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich) led the world for half a century in their openness to women seeking higher educational opportunities.
Founded in 1833, the Zurich's Hochschule (it would be officially granted the title Universität Zurich in 1912) was by the 1860s an important component of a thriving bourgeois city increasingly aware of its importance as a center of expanding commerce and liberal innovation, features that made Zurich a haven for political refugees and radical émigrés. In 1864, a Russian woman, Maria Knjaznina , successfully applied for permission to attend lectures at the university's medical school. The following spring, another Russian woman, Nadezhda Suslova, was allowed to attend lectures. By December 1867, when Suslova successfully defended her thesis before the medical faculty, it was becoming clear that change was in the air. At the conclusion of Suslova's impressive defense of her original research, surgeon Edmund Rose, who along with the other examining professors had questioned the candidate sharply, simply noted: "Soon we are coming to the end of slavery for women, and soon we will have the practical emancipation of women in every country and with it the right to work." Suslova was the first modern woman to be the recipient of a medical degree from a recognized university of high academic standards.
Two members of the group who would go down in history as the Zurich Seven arrived in Zurich in the fall of 1868. Susan Dimock, a native of North Carolina, and Marie Vögtlin, a minister's daughter from a conservative farming town in canton Aargau, quickly became close friends. Vögtlin had grown up in a family that valued books and education. Engaged at age 17 to Friedrich Erismann (who would later marry Nadezhda Suslova), Marie was encouraged by him to pursue her intellectual and political interests. She became an avid reader, devouring books by such leading liberal thinkers of the day as John Stuart Mill and Giuseppe Mazzini. Vögtlin's enthusiasm for Mazzini's gospel of human progress became even more intense after she met the venerable idealist while he was visiting Zurich.
Following the end of her engagement to Erismann, Vögtlin determined to become a physician. Her father initially agreed to her plans, but he retreated in the face of opposition both from family and community after they became known nationally. For a time, much of Swiss public life was centered on debating whether or not Marie Vögtlin should be permitted to study medicine "like those Russian women." Eventually, however, Vögtlin's father consented and became a strong supporter of her aspirations. A beacon of liberalism in a nation that was in many aspects still profoundly conservative, the University of Zurich admitted Vögtlin in autumn 1868. Marie wrote to a friend, "I want to break new pathways, will I succeed? The responsibility I have taken on myself is great. I feel that I stand here in the name of my entire sex and if I do poorly I can become a curse to my sex."
Like all the others in the pioneering group, Vögtlin did not "do poorly," being instead a dedicated and excellent student of all facets of medical theory and practice. As did Dimock, whom she called her "faithful companion," Vögtlin found Zurich's professors and the rest of the medical students to be supportive. In a letter, she described the school's rector as being "like an angel to me; the professors… are all extremely friendly; concerning the students all one hears is how decently they treat the women." With their morale high and their success clearly in sight, Dimock and Vögtlin excelled in their studies. Confiding to a friend, Vögtlin noted: "Miss Dimock and I are probably the best in the entire anatomy class." Dimock successfully completed her studies in 1871, and for the two friends parting was a painful experience. Marie described it as being comparable to dying, "for we will probably never see each other again." Four years later, Dimock, by then a successful physician in Boston, would look forward to a European study tour and a reunion with Vögtlin and other friends from her years in Zurich. Tragically, she died in May 1875, when the steamship Schiller sank near the coast of England with the loss of nearly all on board.
Vögtlin was the last of the band of seven to finish her doctorate. Unlike the others, she had had no previous training in medicine before her enrollment, and thus after completion of her course work in 1872 took additional courses in Germany. At the University of Leipzig (where she was the only woman among 3,200 students), she found the other students to be "repulsive" in their loud and insulting behavior toward her. She completed her studies at Dresden, writing a thesis under the supervision of noted gynecologist Franz von Winckel. Back in Zurich, on July 11, 1874, Vögtlin passed her doctoral examination in the same room where all but one—Elizabeth Morgan—had preceded her. By this time, the "Zurich experiment" in women's medical education was seen as a clear success. Never again would a serious question be raised about the admission of women to medical schools, although restrictions on the medical education of women (except in France) would continue for the rest of the 19th century. As late as 1907, neither Germany, Great Britain, Russia, nor the United States had opened their medical schools to women as widely and with as much liberality as had Switzerland. By that time, more than a thousand women were studying medicine in Swiss universities, a number greater than in the rest of Europe combined and equal to the total enrollment of women in the 150 medical schools of all kinds, including women's schools, in the United States.
Two years after receiving her medical degree, Vögtlin married Albert Heim, a geologist four years younger than she. Both shared interests in the wonders of nature and the promise of modern science. Both also had social consciences, showing concern over the class divisions and injustices that were threatening the stability of European society. Vögtlin opened her medical practice in gynecology and quickly became well known throughout Zurich. Putting into practice a "Socialism of the Good Deed" (Sozialismus der helfenden Tat), Vögtlin offered her medical services to indigent as well as affluent patients. To avoid shaming her poor patients, she charged them a nominal fee, so they would not regard themselves as "mere charity cases."
In her long, active career, Vögtlin received full support from her husband, whose work as a geologist also flourished over the next decades. The busy couple often spent pleasant hours together at home, where they worked at a large desk in a study they shared. Vögtlin was able to combine the roles of successful physician and mother, giving birth to a son Arnold when she was 37 and a daughter Helene when she was 40. Besides raising their own children, she and her husband added a third child to the family, a foster daughter named Hanneli.
Starting in 1896, in association with two other Swiss women physicians, Anna Heer and Ida Schneider , Vögtlin worked on a plan to build a professional nursing school in Zurich. Overcoming many professional and financial obstacles, the Swiss Nurses' School (Schweizerischen Pflegerinnenschule) opened its doors in 1901. With Heer as its chief physician, the school could boast of a dedicated staff of highly trained and experienced women professionals, including Vögtlin as head of its pediatric division. For over a decade, she worked to maintain and even raise the school's standards, which quickly gave it a sterling reputation beyond Switzerland. Advancing years finally took their toll on Vögtlin, and in the winter of 1913–14 her health broke down. By the end of 1913, when it became clear that she was suffering from a serious case of tuberculosis, she had no choice but to retire from the Swiss Nurses' School and end her practice as a gynecologist. Almost as painful for Vögtlin as accepting the termination of a long and successful career in medicine was her realization that because of World War I Europe was involved in a savage bloodbath lacking in moral significance. Disgusted by the attitudes of both the French and German sides in the conflict, she concluded in a letter, "one cannot sympathize with any nation." Mourned not only by women physicians whose cause she had pioneered so many decades earlier, but also by countless individuals whose lives had been enriched as a result of her practical idealism, Marie Vögtlin died in Zurich on November 7, 1916.
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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia