Doctors Wanted: Women Need Not Apply

In 19th century Iowa some women worked as nurses. Few were doctors. What barriers prevented women from becoming doctors?

When Delia Irish was a girl growing up in Wisconsin, she may have heard about Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in America to graduate from medical school. Elizabeth became a doctor in 1849, when Delia was 7 years old. Delia might have decided then that she too wanted to be a doctor.

In those days, there were not many places where a woman could study medicine. Even the college Elizabeth Blackwell had attended refused to admit any other women. So when Delia finished high school, she began to study medicine with a local doctor. That was the old way, but Delia wanted a modern education.

A special medical college just for women had been founded in Philadelphia, so Delia decided she would go there. She had to teach school to earn the money, but in 1868 she finally became a doctor.

With her new medical degree in hand, Dr. Delia Irish moved to Davenport to work as a doctor. She was one of only eight women physicians in the whole state of Iowa.

Many people did not think women should be doctors at all. A medical professor at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, wrote a book claiming that education for women would ruin their health and make them unable to have children. In some places the men in charge of licensing doctors refused to give women doctors licenses. Women were often barred from medical societies.

Opportunities in Iowa

Luckily, things were a little better in Iowa. Delia Irish was welcomed into the medical society in Davenport. And in 1875 she joined the state medical society. When the medical school at the State University of Iowa opened in 1870, both men and women were allowed to attend. Women came from all over the United States to study medicine in Iowa. Soon there was a woman on the board that licensed new physicians.

Gradually, more and more women became physicians. From the table below, you can see how male doctors continued to outnumber women doctors in the 19th century:

Number of Iowa Doctors 1870-1900
  1870 1880 1890 1900
Women 8 73 128 260
Men 1,857 2,962 2,923 3,749
Total 1,865 3,035 3,051 4,009

Many women doctors became leaders of their communities. Dr. Jennie McCowen of Davenport supported many charities. She also wrote for newspapers in Davenport, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois, and Cleveland, Ohio, and helped edit the state medical journal. Dr. Sara Pagburn Kime of Ft. Dodge worked for better care for the mentally ill. She and her husband also ran a hospital for people with tuberculosis. Dr. Margaret Abigail Cleaves was a founder of the Des Moines Woman's Club. Later she moved to Pennsylvania where she was a pioneer in providing better care for mentally ill women.

"In Union There Is Strength"

Even though the number of female doctors continued to grow, there were still only a few compared to the number of male doctors. A woman doctor might rarely get to meet and talk to another woman doctor. In 1898 some women decided they could help each other be better doctors by starting an organization. The Society of Iowa Medical Women was the first state medical woman's society in the country.

"In union there is strength," proclaimed Dr. Azuba King of Des Moines, one of the first presidents of the organization.

"Each must give the best that is in her for the good of all," said Dr. Jennie McCowen, "standing shoulder to shoulder, and holding out hands of sympathy and helpfulness and good cheer to all newcomers."

The women met each year to discuss the pleasures and problems of their profession and to learn the latest breakthroughs in medicine. Sometimes they invited guests, like one of the first women surgeons, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, to give lectures at their meetings.

Struggles Ahead

It is not surprising that these women doctors felt the need to join together to support each other. In spite of the growing number of women in medicine and the acceptance many found in Iowa, some people still did not think women should be doctors.

In 1897 some women in the medical school at Drake University were harassed and insulted by male students. At first the medical school voted to end the problem by expelling all the women. But the directors of the university insisted that women had a right to study medicine, and the women were allowed to stay. Many of the women students did not feel welcome, so they left anyway to go to other schools.

From the days of pioneering women doctors like Elizabeth Blackwell and Delia Irish, women made great strides in the medical profession in the 19th century. But progress did not continue at the same pace in the 20th century. Many medical schools continued to refuse to admit more than a few women and women were not encouraged to become doctors.

Late in the 20th century the woman's movement helped change the medical profession. In 2005 the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported that for the first time in history, women made up the majority of medical school applicants in the United States. In 2014 33.3 percent of active physicians in the United States were female and over 1,900 women physicians were in Iowa.


  • Association of American Medical Colleges, "2015 State Physician Workforce Data Book," 
  • Sharon E. Wood, “Doctors Wanted-Women Need Not Apply,” The Goldfinch , no. 4 (April 1988): 10.