Today, we meet Germany's first woman doctor. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Come with me to Quedlinburg,
Germany. The year is 1715. A little girl, Dorothea,
is born to the rebellious town doctor. She's
bright, and he complains that gifted women's
talents are being wasted in the kitchen.
He arranges for Dorothea to go with her brother
Tobias to a tutor. Tobias prepares to study
medicine. She follows, line by line. Finally, her
father petitions Frederick the Great to let her
join Tobias at the University of Halle.
Under Frederick's rule, several women gained
honorary membership in the Prussian Academy of
Sciences. His enlightened Department of
Intellectual Affairs grants the request.
Now trouble begins. First, a pamphleteer argues
that it's illegal for women to be doctors. About
this time, Dorothea marries Deacon Erxleben. As the
argument heats up, she becomes stepmother to his
five children. Then she bears four more of her own.
She publishes a rejoinder to the pamphlet:
Inquiry into the Causes Preventing the Female
Sex from Studying. Her father writes an
introduction. He supports her case with Biblical
sources. She's less inclined to such theoretical
grounds. What women need, she says, are books and
entry into schools.
Before she can start school, war breaks out. Tobias
is drafted. It's out of the question for a woman to
attend university alone. But she keeps on studying
medicine. She learns from books and from her
father. By the time he dies, she's well qualified.
She even writes a dissertation.
Now she begins practicing medicine to pay off
debts. Regular doctors hound her until her first
patient dies. Then they bring charges against her
for practicing without a license and for
witchcraft. They flatly say she threatens the
monopoly they hold by God and by law. Dorothea
"Fine! Here's my dissertation. Let me defend it at
the university. Let me take the exams." Officials
debate for a year. Can a woman, so often pregnant,
practice medicine? Are women really intelligent
enough to be doctors? Finally they let her take the
exams. She passes with flying colors. Now we read
her dissertation. Too many doctors, she claims,
overtreat illness -- they jump in too quickly with
purgatives and opiates.
That is how Dorothea Erxleben became Germany's
first woman doctor. And Germany was friendlier than
most countries were to women. So what happened now
that she'd opened the door? Could others follow?
They could not. The next woman doctor graduated
from Halle in 1901. And on that cheerful note, I
leave you until next time.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds