Monday, March 29, 2021

Dorothea Erxleben (1715-1762): The First Woman to Earn a Medical Doctorate

Women's History Month: A month celebrating women of history! I will be posting media and book recommendations, highlighting women from (mostly) the 18th century, and otherwise sharing content with an emphasis on women in history.


A portrait of Dorothea Erxleben

Dorothea Christiane Erxleben born in 1715; several decades later, she would become the first woman known to earn a medical degree and become a practicing licensed physician. Although woman often worked in medical fields as midwives, nurses and unofficial practitioners, women in Europe were not allowed to hold medical degrees or practice as doctors.

Dorothea's father, Christian Leporin, was a physician; he taught both his son Christian and his daughter Dorothea medicine in addition to Latin and other scholarly pursuits.

Women were not allowed to become licensed physicians. This did not stop Dorothea from petitioning to study at the University of Halle, where her brother Christian planned to attend. Frederick II approved the petition, and Dorothea was allowed to study.

Her acceptance into the university was met with a contrast of support and anger. Johann Rhetius argued that since she could not practice medicine, there was no point to her graduating with a degree she could not use. Dorothea, for her part, gathered her thoughts in notes which would later be published as 'A Thorough Inquiry into the Causes Preventing the Female Sex from Studying'" In this work, Dorothea explored the fact that women were often burdened with children and housework and other gender-based expectations, making it impossible for them to engage in studies.

Although she was accepted to Halle in 1742, she was unable to attend the university as planned. She would later write that 'Providence' had other plans fo rher. She married, had several children, and dealt with frequent, ongoing family obligations which made studying at Halle (far away from her hometown) an impossible choice. In addition to her own children, she raised the 5 children of her cousin, Sophie, and tended to her ailing and dying father.

As the years went on, she began to practice medicine in her local town of Quedlinburg, despite her lack of official degree. In some cases, she was treating patients that her father was no longer able to treat due to his illness and, after 1747, his death.

The three doctors in Quendlinburg filed a lawsuit against her, charging her with "medical quackery" under the form of three specific charges: that she allowed herself to be called Frau Doctorin, that she often visited patients, and that she sometimes accepted money for her services. She answered all three charges in a 16 page letter, ending it with the bold defense that she would take her medical examinations, only if her accusers would take them at the same time.

The trio of physicians were outraged by her response, and derogatorily called her a "dear lady [who] considers herself a doctor, only by virtue of the fact that she can toss around some broken Latin and French." They even accused her of being a witch, saying she had treated a patient she didn't meet in person.

Frederick II intervened in 1754, ordering that Erxleben would need to take her medical examination and submit a dissertation to the University of Halle. Johann Junker, the rector at Halle, was sympathetic to Dorothea and argued that it was an "inexcusable injustice" to exclude women from the medical field or studies.

Dorothea submitted her dissertation, called 'Concerning the Swift and Pleasant but for that Reason less than Full Cure of Illnesses,' in which she argued (among other things) that many illnesses would be better treated with slower interventions and treatments, contrasted to the expectation from both physicians and patients that immediate interventions would be used. She was unanimously approved by the medical board, who noted that she could not have answered better than the most skilled physicians. Her dissertation became so popular that Erxleben had it translated into German and reprinted the following year.

On June 12th, 1754, Erxleben was awarded her medical doctorate. She practiced medicine until her death in 1762.

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