You are here

Women in Medicine

Schlesinger Library exhibit on lives and work of innovative women at pivotal moments in American medicine.


April 29, 2014—“Women in Medicine” at the Schlesinger Library showcased the struggles and achievements of women doctors, medical activists and health care providers in the 19th and 20th centuries. “We wanted to think of women doing groundbreaking things in roles that were not expected of them,” said Genna Duplisea, who curated the exhibit.

Duplisea, along with Jaimie Fritz, worked on the exhibit as a capstone to the Schlesinger’s Experimental Archives Project (EAP), which encourages archivists to work collaboratively to test new approaches. Duplisea is now at Salve Regina College, and Fritz joined the MIT Libraries.

“After nearly two years working for the Experimental Archives Project, we were curious to see how our acquired skills and experiences would affect the curation,” Duplisea and Fritz wrote in a reflection on their work. “The final product offers a glimpse at many women and organizations who have impacted the history of medicine, hopefully allowing viewers to find multiple paths of interest and explore further through use of the full collections.”


view from exhibit entry

The four gallery walls follow a chronological narrative, touching on the themes the curators saw emerge between the collections: Founders & Firsts, Revolutionizing Obstetrics and Women’s Health, DIY Medicine, and Emerging Challenges in Medical Research.


Due to the exhibit’s offsite location in Byerly Hall, which faces the Schlesinger across Radcliffe Quad, many of the materials needed to be digitized. The large gallery space provided the perfect space for experimentation in the visual presentation of materials.

Martha May Eliot as HSPH Visiting Committee Member

Martha May Eliot helped develop practical methods for preventing and controlling childhood rickets. She went on to become a founding member of the World Health Organization and UNICEF. This 1948 photo shows her as the sole woman on the Visiting Committee of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Early Lamaze classes

Many mid-20th century pioneers focused their work on educating women about pregnancy and childbirth, and empowering them to make their own health choices during both. These photos in the exhibit show Lamaze International cofounder Elisabeth Bing teaching a class in her home ca. 1965.

Mary Calderone poster

Dr. Mary Calderone struck nerves by encouraging sexual education for children, and speaking out about homophobia and discrimination. This 1970s lecture poster calls her “world famous.”

Things like the condoms and cervical caps reflect medical research on birth control methods and a record of the materials of the time.

wide shot of gallery space

Items were pulled from 16 manuscript collections at the Schlesinger Library. The exhibit, which ran from April 7th to 18th, was presented in conjunction with the Radcliffe Institute Conference “Who Decides? Gender, Medicine and the Public’s Health.” (Photo courtesy of Matthew Delphenich.)

abortion clinic memo

The curators were given guidance from Schlesinger staff members and free rein over the Schlesinger’s collections. “We discovered from having some sandboxing time that we wanted to have an overview and show a lot different kinds of women, and show how their contributions changed over time in the country,” explains Fritz. This memo to abortion clinic staff members on new pricing honestly outlines the funding difficulties the clinic faced.

Linda Laubenstein

The exhibit profiles women whose roles in medicine are largely unheralded today. “Despite going to a women’s college and working at Radcliffe, I didn’t know about Linda Laubenstein or her paramount influence on the AIDS movement,” says Fritz. “I was really happy for the opportunity to learn about her and profile her.” Laubenstein was so important to early awareness efforts for AIDs, a 1993 McCall’s profile of her was titled “The Woman Who ‘Discovered’ AIDS”.

DIY diagram

Some documents were by unknown authors, created by non-professionals to explain health matters in accessible ways. Here, an author broke down the information that appears on a prescription, and distributed a diagram to help women understand how their breasts functioned.