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Sarah McNutt (1839-1930)

A multi-talented physician, Sarah McNutt's work was cited by Gowers and Osler, and she was the first woman elected to the American Neurological Association for her work in pediatric neuropathology.

The American Neurological Association (ANA) was founded in 1875 by the foremost neurologists in the country  - including William Hammond (1828-1900), the eleventh surgeon general, first neurology professor in the United States, and author of one of the first modern neurology textbooks. The ANA was intended to be an elite organization of no more than 50 of the top academic neurologists. Russell DeJong (1907-1990), president of the ANA in 1964, reminisced that "to get in [the ANA], one had to have grey hair, and have published at least 15 articles, and had to write an acceptable thesis." In 1884, Sarah McNutt presented her work on pathology related to cerebral palsy and was elected the first woman in this prestigious organization.

Born in Warrensburg, NY, McNutt taught for several years and became a principal before attending medical school at the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary. This school, started by Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) and her sister Emily Blackwell (1826-1910), was an important resource for women interested in medical education in the United States, at a time when most traditional medical schools did not accept women.   

McNutt stayed on at the Women’s Medical College after her graduation in 1877. Initially she was Instructor of Gynecology, then Assistant to the Chair of General Surgery; then she worked in the Children’s Department for eleven years, and then in the Gynecological Department for another twenty.

McNutt was nominated for ANA membership at the 10th ANA annual meeting, by Royal W. Amidon (1854-1938) and Hammond. She described the post-mortem brain pathology of a girl with spasticity and quadriplegia after a difficult birth – likely perinatal hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy – who died of pneumonia at two and a half years of age. This paper, titled “Provisional Report of a Case of Double Infantile Spastic Hemiplegia,” was remembered by ANA president Charles K. Mills (1845-1930) as “one of the earliest American contributions to the subject of arrested cerebral development.”

McNutt continued to present and publish on pediatric neuropathology. “Seven Cases of Infantile Spastic Hemiplegia” was published in Archives of Pediatrics in 1885. Another early female neurologist, Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906) collaborated on this paper – measuring temperatures on the scalp after one child’s convulsive seizure. That same year, she published on “apoplexia neonatorum” – hemorrhagic stroke in the newborn.

The British neurologist William Gowers (1845-1915) generally opposed the idea of women in medicine, but cited McNutt’s work on spastic hemiplegia in A Manual of Diseases of the Nervous System (1886). When Macdonald Critchley wrote a tribute to Gowers in 1949, he stated that Gowers was not “a rabid misogynist” but thought that McNutt’s contributions were “by far the most valuable contribution to medical science that the profession has yet received from its members of her sex.” William Osler (1849-1919) who coined the term "cerebral palsy," also cites McNutt's work in his book on Cerebral Palsies of Children.

In 1888, McNutt cofounded Babies Hospital of the City of New York, the first pediatric hospital in New York City, with physicians Jeannie Smith, Isabella Satherthwaite, Isabella Banks, and her own sister Julia McNutt (1844-1928). This hospital initially had 30 beds for infants and children up to 3 years of age. Initially all physicians and residents employed in the institution were women. In time, the hospital grew, moved, accepted older children, and became affiliated with Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

McNutt resigned from membership in the ANA in 1902, “owing to the stress of a busy life and the inability to attend the meetings of the Association.” There would not be another woman in the ANA until the election of Lauretta Bender (1897-1987) in the 1930s.

Horn, S. and C.G. Goetz (2002). The election of Sarah McNutt as the first woman member of the American Neurological Association Neurology. Jul 2002, 59 (1) 113-117

Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD