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Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842–1906)

Portrait of Mary Putnam Jacobi from The Life and Letters of Mary Putnam Jacobi, 1925, Widener Library.
Portrait of Mary Putnam Jacobi from The Life and Letters of Mary Putnam Jacobi, 1925, Widener Library.

Mary Putnam Jacobi was a prominent physician, author, scientist, researcher, activist, and medical educator. An American, Jacobi was the first female graduate of the Ecole de Médecine in Paris and, as a physician, the first woman to be admitted to the New York Academy of Medicine. Throughout her career, Jacobi remained a staunch advocate for the rights and medical education and training of women.

Jacobi was born Mary Putnam in England to American parents. Her father was George Palmer Putnam, the founder of the publishing firm of G.P. Putnam's Sons. In 1848, the family returned to New York, and Jacobi was educated both privately and in public school. Despite her father's thought that medical science was a "repulsive pursuit," he supported her request to study at the New York College of Pharmacy, where she graduated in 1863. She received her MD at the Female (later Women's) Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864 and moved to Boston to study clinical medicine at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She became dissatisfied with the level of training in the United States and, in 1868, she became the first female student at the Ecole de Médecine in Paris. She graduated with honors in 1871, received a bronze medal for her thesis, and returned to New York, where she combined private clinical practice with research and teaching at the New York Infirmary and Mount Sinai Hospital. Jacobi was the first woman to gain admission to numerous medical societies, including the New York Academy of Medicine. In 1873, Jacobi married the influential New York pediatrician, leader, and researcher Abraham Jacobi.

During her career, Jacobi published nine books and over 120 medical articles. In her paper, "The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation," she refuted the question of women's physical limitations in response to Dr. Edward H. Clarke's earlier publication, "Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls" (1875), which questioned the expanded role of women in society and the professions. Dr. Jacobi provided tables, statistics, and sphygmographic tracings of pulse rate, force, and variations to illustrate the stability of a woman's health, strength, and agility throughout her monthly cycle. Despite great controversy surrounding the report, the paper was awarded Harvard Medical School's esteemed Boylston Medical Prize in 1876.

Dr. Jacobi was an active participant in, and supporter of, the suffragist movement. She actively supported her female students as a medical educator and, through her affiliation with Woman's Medical College in Pennsylvania, as an alumna and instructor. One of Dr. Jacobi's last scientific works was a detailed clinical account of her own meningeal tumor, from which she died in 1906.

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