March is Women’s History Month, a good time to recall that though Elizabeth Blackwell – the first woman physician of modern times – obtained her medical degree in 1849, American medicine remained an overwhelmingly male preserve well into the 20th century. While most U.S. medical schools were co-educational by the 1920s, social expectations and professional resistance retarded the entry of women into medicine and slowed their advancement once they began practicing.
All the more remarkable, then, that so many women physicians active in the first half-century of what was then called the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center attained such distinction. While they were predominantly in fields seen as more “fitting” for women – pathology, pediatrics and psychiatry among them – and were more often researchers than clinicians, these women thoroughly rebuked the notion that the female sex was incapable of distinguished achievement in medicine.
Among these outstanding women was Hattie Alexander (1901-1968). A native of Baltimore, Alexander received her undergraduate education at Goucher College (A.B., 1923). She then worked for three years with the U.S. and Maryland Public Health Services to raise the money for medical school. She attended Johns Hopkins and after graduating in 1930 interned at the Johns Hopkins Hospital pediatric division, the Harriet Lane Home. The next year she continued her internship at Columbia-Presbyterian’s Babies Hospital (now Children’s Hospital of New York).
Alexander spent the rest of her career at Babies Hospital and the College of Physicians & Surgeons, eventually becoming an Attending Pediatrician and a Professor of Pediatrics. At Babies Hospital, Alexander headed the microbiological laboratory and became a leading authority on bacterial infections. In 1939, she gained international recognition by developing a rabbit anti-serum that was the first effective treatment of influenzal meningitis in infants, a previously fatal disease. She also conducted research on the mechanisms of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and was an early researcher in microbiological genetics. In both her research and teaching, Alexander was known for her vigorous scholarly skepticism.
She received many honors during her career, perhaps the most note-worthy being her election in 1964 as the first female president of the American Pediatric Society. With Dr. Elizabeth Ufford, Alexander lived in Port Washington, New York, and enjoyed cultivating orchids, listening to music, and riding in her speedboat. She died from cancer on June 24, 1968.
Image: Dr. Hattie Alexander, 1963. Photograph by Elizabeth Wilcox.