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Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906)

She attended meetings of the American Neurological Association, chaired the Neurological Section of the New York Academy of Medicine and published approximately 20 papers on neurology – making Mary Putnam Jacobi arguably the first female (pediatric) neurologist

Mary Corinne Putnam was born in England, the daughter of New York publisher George P. Putnam. At age 9, she planned to dissect the heart of a dead rat she found in a stable, but her mother stopped her. She wrote in 1902 that this inspired her to pursue a career in medicine.

Back in the United States, she attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of few medical schools that accepted women at the time. When graduation approached, Putnam was denied her degree, because she hadn’t attended classes in Chemistry and Practice of Medicine (she said she knew the information already). The faculty voted to let her pass. Dean Edwin Fussell resigned when Putnam was given her diploma (a resignation he later withdrew). He said “A man, of very moderate abilities, and small attainments, may pass along in this profession, without having special attention attracted to his deficiencies; but it cannot be so in this age with a woman…mediocrity in attainments is in her a crime!”

After graduation, Putnam went to Europe, where she took classes and received special dispensation to officially attend L’Ecole de Medicine of the University of Paris. She was the first woman to study at what was then considered the best medical school in the world. After completing her second medical degree in 1871, she returned to New York to join the faculty of the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, established by Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman to get a medical degree in the United States.

 

In 1873, she married Abraham Jacobi (1830-1919), a Jewish physician who trained in Berlin. Jacobi, the “Father of Pediatrics,” started the first pediatrics clinic in New York City, established the first pediatrics department at Mount Sinai Hospital, and was the first president of the American Pediatric Society.

 

Putnam Jacobi published many papers on general issues of pediatrics and gynecology, which were common areas of focus for women physicians at that time. However, her devotion to neurology was unusual, and she is considered the first female neurologist. Putnam Jacobi attended meetings of the American Neurological Association, and was remembered by former ANA president Charles K. Mills (1845-1930) as “one ardent in her work, intense in her conviction, tenacious in her opinion, and of superior intellectual quality.” She chaired the Neurological Section of the New York Academy of Medicine (as their first female member), and she was the first woman in the New York Neurological Society. She published many reviews and case reports of neurological issues – almost all pediatric – including cases of spina bifida, hydrocephalus, tubercular meningitis, seizures, ataxia, and brain tumors. 

 

Putnam Jacobi’s last paper was titled “Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum, From Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself.” In this personal article, she describes feeling a pain in the back of her head, starting in 1896; followed by sudden falls, often after standing, without vertigo or pain; indifference, exhaustion, and anhedonia; and, in 1905, a dragging heaviness in her left arm. No autopsy was published, and her symptoms could be consistent with many illnesses - but regardless of whether Putnam Jacobi had a cerebellar meningioma, she was very ill, and she knew it. She died in 1906, at only 63 years of age.

Bittel, C. Mary Putnam Jacobi and the Politics of Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America. University of North Carolina Press: 2012 

Gartner, C B (1996). Fussell's folly: academic standards and the case of Mary Putnam Jacobi. Academic Medicine:71(5);470-477

Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD