150 years of female doctors in the Netherlands – Faces of Science

Although there is a rich history of healers and midwives, who passed down surgical wisdom from generation to generation, until recently women were also forbidden to study and work as doctors in the Netherlands. Women have been systematically excluded from the male-dominated world of medicine. Only 150 years ago, the first woman in our country was officially allowed to study medicine. She was also the first woman in the Netherlands ever allowed to study. She and other early female physicians pioneered a new wind in medicine, often championing women’s rights, and played an important role in winning the right to vote in 1917.

Aletta Jacobs: The first female student, medical graduate and PhD candidate in the Netherlands

Aletta Jacobs, the first female doctor in the Netherlands

Alita was born in 1854 as the eighth child into a Jewish family in Zabermeer. Her father was a doctor and she also wanted to be a doctor. But girls were not allowed to go to university at that time. At home she was apprenticed to her father and in 1870 passed the examination to become a pharmacist. Unbeknownst to anyone, she wrote a letter to Prime Minister Thorbecke, who is known as the founder of Dutch parliamentary democracy. It contained an application for permission to study medicine in Groningen. In 1871 he gave her permission to attend lectures, and a year later she was officially admitted to the university. In 1878 she also obtained permission to have a medical examination done for her. Although Anna Maria Schurmann was indeed allowed to listen to lectures in Utrecht in the early 17th century (behind a curtain), women were not allowed to graduate in Aletta.

After obtaining her medical degree, Alita received her Ph.D. for the research “On the localization of physiological and pathological phenomena in the brain.” She was also the first female doctoral candidate in our country. Then she left for London because she was allowed to continue her studies as a doctor in a hospital there. Here she came into contact with, among other things, women physicians who had graduated from the London College of Medicine for Women, committed to women’s suffrage and birth control.

Back in the Netherlands, Alita opened a public practice on the Heerengracht in Amsterdam where she conducted free consultations twice a week for women from the slums. Here she taught women how to use the female diaphragm as a method of contraception. Since 1882, her practice has focused on contraception as a solution to the social misery she saw in her practice: she founded the world’s first family planning clinic. In 1897 she wrote the seminal book Woman: Her Structure and Internal Organs, about the body and anatomy of women. Her campaign for better working conditions for women made it a legal requirement in 1902 that shop assistants be given a seat. In addition, she is the co-founder and first president of Vereeniging voor Vrouwenkiesrecht.In 1922, just 100 years ago, women were allowed to vote for themselves for the first time in the Netherlands.

Katharine van Tosenbroeck: The first female gynecologist in the Netherlands

Kathryn van Tosenbroek, the first female gynecologist in the Netherlands.

Born in 1852 as the third child of a carpenter in Utrecht, Catherine was first trained as a teacher. In 1880 she was one of the first women to study medicine in Utrecht. After receiving her doctorate, Katherine became a gynecologist and was the first doctor to describe the presence of ectopic pregnancies in her ovaries by microscopic examination. She has also published on cervical cancer and written a book on the development of sterile obstetrics in the Netherlands.

As an advocate for women’s health, she has spoken out against corsets that impede women’s freedom of movement and has advocated loose-fitting clothing. Although she was asked to become a professor, she declined the offer in order to get enough time for her non-medical women’s rights work, including a position as head of the National Office of Women’s Action. An important grant is also named after her, which makes it possible for female scientists to conduct research abroad.

Cornelia de Lange: the first female professor of medicine in the Netherlands

Cornelia de Lange, the first female professor of medicine in the Netherlands

Cornelia de Lange was born in 1871 in Alkmaar and was the fifth female doctor in the Netherlands. And because pediatrics did not yet exist as a specialty in the Netherlands, I went to Zurich. There was one of the first children’s wards in the world. She then returned to Amsterdam to work at Emma Children’s Hospital, where she also started a new infant ward. In the Netherlands, she devoted herself to combating infant mortality and setting up advisory offices.

In 1927 she was the first woman to be appointed professor of medicine. The Association of Dutch Women Doctors was founded around the celebration of her appointment. Cornelia has done significant research on congenital syndromes and the neurological disorder named after her “Cornelia de Lange Syndrome”.

Since Aletta Jacobs was granted permission to study medicine in 1972, women have invaded the medical world in the Netherlands. At the time of Cornelia’s appointment, 95 years ago, Holland had fewer than 500 female doctors. Meanwhile, each year about 1,500 women begin their medical studies. In 2022, 150 years after the first women were allowed to study medicine, the proportion of females among doctors in the Netherlands will rise to 59%. However, more than half of medical professionals are still men and gender inequality is still prevalent in senior scientific positions in the Netherlands. In 2015, for example, only 18% of professors were women. So there is still a lot to be done for the women scientists and doctors of our generation!

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Longread History of Women in Medicine Aletta Jacobs Essay on Katharine Van Tosenbruck Essay on Cornelia de Lange

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