Medical School (1898-1902)

Changing Roles for Female Physicans 

“The study of medicine would consume about four years of your life and the results would give you a chance to bury yourself in some charitable institution for the rest of your lifetime,” George Klehm wrote in the letter to his daughter from September 1896But George had not reckoned with his daughter’s self-confidence, which was now mature enough to override his well-meant advice. Louise had set her sights on medical school, and that was that.

Generally speaking, George was right. Low-paying jobs in charitable institutions were what most female physicians could expect, for after a cautious welcome to the few intrepid female physicians of the Civil War years, most of the male medical establishment now balked at sharing their earning power with a growing list of would-be women colleagues. Unfortunately for them, these physicians had reckoned without the women’s determination.

Neither forecasts of banishment to charitable institutions nor dire rationalizations about the effects of dissection on female delicacy slowed the swelling tide, which would crest at a total of 7,000 female American doctors by 1900.

Dr. A. Louise Klehm and Fellow Female Medical School Students, circa 1902. Dr. A. Louise Klehm is in top row, far left. 

William Quine and the University of Illinois 

As Louise Klehm well knew, not all male phyisicans were so protective of their turf. William QuineDean of the College of Physicians and Surgeons at the University of Illinois was a source of bracing feminist support as well as a firm believer in professional equality for women physicians. An influential man, he also had an outstanding trump card that no opponent could match; his own wife had been an extrememely competent medical missionary in China until felled by tuburculosis.

Dean Quine welcomed his first female students to the University of Illinois Medical School in 1897, thoughtfully providing them with separate dressing rooms and bathrooms so they would be appropriately attired whether in the laboratory, the wards or the dissection rooms. This whole-heared innovation paid a handsome reward. By the following year he was able to declare himself most impressed with their dedication and hard work.

Dr. Louise Klehm Studio Portrait, circa 1890 

A Mentorship and an Internship

In company with 14 other women, Klehm entered the University of Illinois program in 1898, settled down to long hours of study, and even found a mentor, Rachelle Yarros. A physician of Russian birth, Yarros was an associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology--the first American woman to hold such a position in a coeducational university.  

Even the most adamant anti-feminist holdouts had to admit that Yarros had a great deal to contribute in terms of educating future doctors. For one thing, she worked with Jane Addams at the famous Hull House settlement center for the poor and the homeless--an environment which assured her students a virtually inexhaustible supply of obstetrical patients. Secondly, Yarros was passionately interested in “social hygiene,” a field covering both birth control and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. A new and desperately needed area of medicine at the dawn of the twentieth century, this was a fertile field for women physicians catering to the more modest of women patients. No wonder so many members of Klehm’s graduating Class of 1902 fought for the voluntary 3-month internships available with Dr. Yarros. Klehm herself was lucky enough to secure a spot at Hull House. In the 12 short weeks alloted to her, she delivered about 70 babies, while also serving patients with health problems related to medicine, surgery, and pediatrics.

The stamina Klehm had willed herself into as a nurse now helped her to cope with the long hours and the endless demands of illness. But working with Dr. Yarros also gave her a poignant insight no textbook could match. Here, she had a close-up view of real poverty, delivering many a baby into a family too poor even to provide a warm and welcoming wrapping blanket. It was a powerful reminder of the physician’s duty to the entire patient rather than merely to a disease, and it was one that she never forgot. Forever after, she would always carry a big bag of clothes and food with her in her buggy or her car for anyone who needed them.

By the time her internship was over Louise Klehm was a woman in her mid-thirties. A studio portrait of her taken around this time has left us a picture of a face very far from Dr. McGee’s recruitment demand of homeliness. Handsome rather than pretty, this was the face of an intelligent woman in the prime of life, with enviably chiseled cheekbones and the alert, penetrating eyes of the physician, all crowned by a silky pompadour of blondish-brown hair.

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