The story of American women’s efforts to become physicians is well-known and has been often told: Elizabeth Blackwell’s graduation from the Geneva Medical College in 1849 — the first woman to receive a medical degree; the founding of the first women’s medical college, the New England Female Medical College in 1848; the opening of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as a coeducational institution in 1893, and so on.
But this story is made up of hundreds of smaller, individual stories and one of those has turned up in the records of the College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S). In October, 1888, Mary Sherwood, an American studying medicine at the University of Zürich, wrote to John C. Dalton, the college’s president, asking to be admitted as a student. She wrote:
I am a graduate of Vassar College and have been for two years a student of medicine at the University of Zürich. I should prefer to spend the remaining two years of my course in America could I study at a school which offers advantages comparing with those found abroad.
Sherwood revealed that she had previously applied to P&S and had been denied on the grounds that it “would be contrary to all precedent.” She was applying again because she believed that the admission of women to P&S “will raise it still higher in the estimation of thinking minds.” Appealing to Dalton’s patriotism she pointed out the incongruity of “a small European country offer[ing] advantages to women which America with all her boasted Emancipation will not give.”
Dalton annotated Sherwood’s letter “laid on table” and there is no mention of it in the Trustees’ or Faculty minutes. Women would not be admitted as students at P&S until 1917.
Sherwood’s later career shows she would have been a credit to P&S. After receiving her medical degree from Zürich in 1890, she returned to the U.S. and settled in Baltimore where she became co-director of the Evening Dispensary for Working Women and Girls of Baltimore, physician to the Bryn Mawr School for Girls, and first director of the Baltimore Health Department’s Bureau of Child Welfare – the first woman to head a municipal bureau in that city. She never married but had a life-long partnership with Lilian Welsh, a fellow Zürich medical graduate. Sherwood died in Baltimore in 1935, aged 79.