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American Medical Biographies/Jacobi, Mary Putnam

Jacobi, Mary Putnam (1842–1906)

Mary Putnam Jacobi, born in London, England, August 31, 1842, was the eldest of the ten children of George Palmer Putnam, publisher. She was descended on both sides from New England colonial stock and seven of her ancestors fought at Bunker Hill.

She was educated by her mother and by tutors, but not the least part of her education was gained from her literary environment. Her rare intellect early set a high goal for her efforts and the study of medicine appealed most strongly. Many of Mary Putnam's writings beginning with her ninth year are in existence; at seventeen she wrote a story, "Found and Lost," which was later accepted and published by the Atlantic Monthly. This success almost turned her from her early decision to study medicine. She began to teach at the age of nineteen to earn money for a medical education, and at the same time studied anatomy under private instruction. Gaining admission as its first woman student to the New York College of Pharmacy, she graduated in 1862. The following two years she spent at the Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia, graduating in 1864. After one year spent as interne in the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Roxbury, Mass., she taught and wrote in New Orleans in order to continue medical study in Paris, where she went in 1866. During the first eighteen months she studied in the hospitals, but could not gain admission to l'Ecole de Médicine because of lack of percedent. Her application through a friend to a certain professor for permission to enter his dissecting room was granted on the condition that she attend in male attire, whereupon, meeting the professor and looking up at his towering six feet from her short five, she exclaimed, "Why, Monsieur, look at my littleness, men's clothes would only exaggerate it. I should never be taken for a man and the objection to mixing with the students would be increased a hundred fold." Struck by her earnestness the good professor agreed, and her enrollment in l'École de Médecine soon followed. "How generously and delicately this brave girl adventurer was treated by the students and the faculty of those days, let this never be forgotten, to the honor of all the Frenchmen who then studied and taught in this great school!" Upon her graduation in 1871 Dr. Putnam received the highest mark for each of her five examinations, and her thesis took the bronze medal, the second prize awarded. She was the first woman ever to take the full course and the second to receive a degree in this institution; Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson being the first.

Dr. Putnam's achievement in opening l'École de Médecine of Paris to women gave her an international reputation and led to many attractive positions being offered her, but she joined the little group of women who were struggling to establish the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, where she immediately became professor of materia medica and therapeutics. When Mary Putnam returned from Europe with a Paris medical degree and a training in scientfic medicine, she was admitted in 1873, without discussion, to the Medical Society of New York County at the suggestion of Dr. Abraham Jacobi, its distinguished president, whom she married a few months later. She also became a member of the pathological, neurological and therapeutic societies, and of the New York Academy of Medicine. In conjunction with Dr. Anna Angell (q. v.) she founded a dispensary at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in 1873; in 1874 the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women, and in 1876 won the Boylston prize (Harvard University), with an essay on "The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation." From 1880 she was visiting physician to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and visiting physician to St. Mark's Hospital after 1893. In 1882 a school for post-graduate instruction was opened in New York City and Dr. Putnam Jacobi was invited to a place on its faculty as the clinical lecturer in children's diseases, the first time such a lectureship in this country had been given a woman.

In 1893, in just recognition of her contributions to neurology, she was made chairman of the neurological section of the Academy of Medicine. Dr. James R. Chadwick (q. v.), of Boston, used to cite as an instance of her wonderful ability to quickly marshal facts from her fund of knowledge the occasion of her after dinner speech at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1889. He had invited her, the first woman thus honored, to be the guest of the Society; on their way to the hall he inquired her topic for an after dinner speech and was dismayed to hear she did not understand she was to make one, but more dismayed to have her add, "Oh, well, I will speak on 'Women in Medicine'," for that hotly discussed, long mooted subject must not be dragged in. "All right," she said, and when her turn came made, as he said, "a simply stunning and brilliant address on 'Practical Study in Biology'," calling forth ringing, enthusiastic applause from the men.

Logical, keen and alert in argument, swift to seize upon the kernel of thought and discard the mesh of verbosity, broad-minded, retentive of facts, almost to the encyclopedic point, original in her conceptions and strong to follow where reason led; all these were qualities of Mary Putnam Jacobi's mind, and above and imbuing all was what Dr. Osler called her heliotropic potency, the truly solar gift of calling out the best that was in those about her.

She was always interested in the political conditions of women, and in 1894 took up the gage in behalf of the ballot for women. She was also an early and ardent advocate of the necessity of having a woman physician in every insane asylum.

Dr. Putnam Jacobi had a dread of becoming a literary physician, feeling that a man who distinguishes himself most highly outside of his profession is rarely a distinguished member of his craft. As a medical writer she made for herself a high and permanent place. She was an active and industrious contributor to medical journals and to the archives of societies; her papers, numbering nearly a hundred, possessing, in addition to original scientific importance, a literary style rare in medical articles. From among her papers may be cited:

"Antagonism of Medicines" (Archives of Medicine, 1881); "Infantile Paralysis" ("Pepper's Archives of Medicine," 1885); "Primary Education" (Popular Science Monthly, 1886); "Some Considerations on Hysteria," 1888; "Acute Mania after Operations," 1889; "Spinal Myelitis, Meningitis in Children" ("Keating's Cyclopedia," 1890); "Brain Tumors" (Wood's Reference Handbook of the Medical Sciences").

Dr. Jacobi died in 1906 of a meningeal tumor pressing on the cerebellum. In the seventh year of her ten years' illness she sent her friend, Dr. Charles L. Dana, a story of her symptoms which he pronounced "so lucid, so objective and yet so human that it would be a classic in medical writing." In January, 1907, the Woman's Medical Association of New York City held a memorial meeting for Mary Putnam Jacobi at the Academy of Medicine. In all the addresses from men and women eminent in medicine, reform and literature there was one dominant note, "her dedication to the work of helping her fellow mortals." A memorial tablet to her memory has been placed in the main hall of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Addresses by Drs. Blackwell. Cushier, Osler, Dana, by Mrs. Florence Kelley and by Richard Watson Gilder, in Memory of Mary Putnam Jacobi, N. Y. Academy of Medicine, Jan. 4, 1907.
Addresses by Drs. Welch, Galbraith and Mills, in Trans. Alumnæ Asso., Woman's Med. Coll. of Penn., 1907.
New York Medical Journal, June 16, 1906.
Personal knowledge and information, H. B. B. in The Woman's Journal, Boston, June 16, 1906.