Advocating for Women With Science: the First Woman Neurologist, Mary Putnam Jacobi

Alison Christy, MD, PhD, tells us about the life and advocacy of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female physician to focus on neurology.

In 1873, Edward Clarke, a Boston physician, published a book titled Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls.


He noted that women could study – they were fully capable of being educated – but the brains of educated women sucked energy from their reproductive organs, causing “neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system.” He backed this up with anecdotes of educated women he had seen who suffered from menorrhagia, amenorrhea or infertility.

Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906) disagreed. She received her MD from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864 – fifteen years after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Not satisfied with her medical training, she went to Paris, where she received special dispensation to become the first woman to earn a medical degree from l’École de Médecine, then considered the best medical school in the world. It is unclear whether she ever met Jean-Martin Charcot, the “father of neurology,” at the Salpêtrière, but she was there as his career began, and left Paris intrigued by issues related to the brain and nerves.


In 1873, Dr. Edward Clarke noted that 'the brains of educated women sucked energy from their reproductive organs, causing 'neuralgia, uterine disease, hysteria and other derangements of the nervous system.'' Click To Tweet


Putnam Jacobi responded to Clarke’s opinions and anecdotes with an extensive scientific essay entitled The Question of Rest For Women During Menstruation.

She surveyed over 250 women on education, exercise, rest and menstruation, and found that the women “free from menstrual disorder” were the ones who took “a good deal of exercise habitually” – not women who rested. She evaluated the physiology of women at different times of their cycles, looking at excretion of urea, body temperature, pulse wave forms, and strength. She concluded there was no reason for a woman to rest during her period, and no reason to keep women out of education. This essay won Harvard University’s Boylston Prize in 1876.

Putnam Jacobi was not only an advocate for women’s rights and education – she was arguably the first female neurologist. Approximately 20 of her published papers focus on neurology, including publications on infantile spinal paralysis (poliomyelitis), childhood ataxia, pseudo-hypertrophic paralysis (muscular dystrophy), spinal cord and pontine tumors and congenital brain defects, and a collection of essays on “Hysteria, Brain Tumor and Some Other Cases of Nervous Disease.”


She disagreed with “specialization in medicine,” and so might have resisted categorization as a neurologist.

She published many articles on broad topics related to pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology. Nonetheless, former American Neurological Association president Charles K. Millis reminisced about her “neurological contributions…characterized by thoroughness of preparation” at meetings of the ANA (although Sarah McNutt was the first female elected member). Putnam Jacobi was the first female member of the New York Neurological Society, and was elected chair of the neurological section of the New York Academy of Medicine (where she was also the first female member).

She fought for patient’s rights, arguing that every “insane asylum” should have a woman physician in it, to care for female patients. Voting rights did not initially interest her but she came to see the importance of political as well as educational freedom for women. In 1894, she drew on her skills in rational and logical debate and wrote a treatise called “‘Common Sense’ Applied to Woman Suffrage.”

Her final neurological case report is titled “A Description of the Early Symptoms of the Meningeal Tumor Compressing the Cerebellum, from Which the Writer Died. Written by Herself.” In this report she describes ten years of symptoms, including headache, sudden falls, indifference and lethargy. While there are no autopsy records to confirm whether she actually had a cerebellar tumor, she did die in 1906, ten years after the onset of her symptoms. She was memoralized by eminent physicians of the time, including William Osler, Emily Blackwell and Charles L. Dana.



A version of this essay was originally published in the American Academy of Neurology Leadership Alumni Newsletter, October 2021
Selected Bibliography:
Bittel, Carla (2005). Science, suffrage and experimentation: Mary Putnam Jacobi and the controversy over vivisection in late nineteenth century America. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Winter;79(4):664-694
Clarke, Edward H. (1873). Sex in education; or, a fair chance for girls. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
In memory of Mary Putnam Jacobi. United States, Academy of Medicine, 1907.
Mills, Charles K (1924). “Some recollections of the early meetings and personnel of the American Neurological Association with a glance at the work of the association during the last fifty years.” Semi-Centennial Anniversary Volume of the American Neurological Association. Smith Ely Jeliffe and Frederick Tilney (ed). American Neurological Association.
Putnam-Jacobi, Mary (1877). The question of rest for women during menstruation: the Boylston prize essay of Harvard University for 1876. New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Putnam-Jacobi, Mary (1882). Specialism in Medicine.  New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Putnam-Jacobi, Mary (1894). “Common sense” applied to woman suffrage; a statement of the reasons which justify the demand to extend the suffrage to women, with consideration of the arguments against such enfranchisement, and with special reference to the issues presented to the New York State Convention of 1894. New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons.


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