Celebrating 100 Years of Women in Medicine at UVM

Louisa Moore ’24

Written by Louisa Moore 24

The history of the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine is all around us. The walls of one of the major hallways in the Given Building on the medical school campus are covered in photos of alumni from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Classrooms are dedicated to various individuals whose professional achievements, financial contributions, or extraordinary dedication have shaped our school. Although I have walked and studied in these spaces for the past seven months, I hadn’t stopped to consider these framed images. They blended into the background of my mind, which was otherwise occupied with schoolwork.

But March is Women’s History Month, and it occurred to me to look for the women in these photographs, particularly those who were early members of our institution. They are hard to spot in those photos, but they are there. The first woman enrolled at UVM’s medical school in 1921—exactly 100 years ago. Her name was Dorothy Lang, and she was a Vermonter, growing up less than 30 miles from Burlington in the small town of Cambridge, in the shadow of Mt. Mansfield. In 1916, after graduating from the Peoples Academy High School in nearby Morrisville, she left the state to pursue a career as a silent film actress. However, World War I and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment opened new possibilities, including in medicine. By this time, women had enrolled at other medical schools around the country, and a committee at UVM’s medical school decided to follow suit, allowing Dorothy a spot in the Class of 1924.

It goes without saying that Dorothy would have faced sexism and discrimination when she arrived at the College of Medicine. A 1951 history of the College reports a remembered lament on the arrival of women: “…the Medics used to say mournfully, ‘This is the last stronghold of the men of Vermont. Did you ever see a woman doctor who was any good?’”

Although some men may have been less than welcoming and even dismissive, Dorothy prevailed, graduating second in her class of 33 and one of only five students to receive “cum laude” honors. According to the same 1951 history, “no one cheered her more vociferously or gladly than her own classmates.” She went on to become a pediatrician outside of New York City. In an interview with Vermont Medicine, one of her sons recalled, “She absolutely loved medicine. It was her life.”

After Dr. Lang, 50 other women graduated from UVM’s College of Medicine between 1924 and 1950. These women went on to do impressive work across the medical field. Among them, three became faculty at UVM, one moved to India and practiced in a mission hospital, and another worked with Native American populations in the western part of the U.S. Of note, only two women left medicine; the rest stayed in the field despite the pull of conventional family life and a difficult environment for women in the workforce.

Since this time, we have made great strides in the inclusion of women in medicine. According to recent data from the AAMC, women accounted for just over 50 percent of medical students in 2019. As a woman of the Class of 2024, I am inspired that a woman in the Class of 1924 paved the path a century ago for my being here. Still, more work needs to be done, particularly in supporting women of color and of other backgrounds underrepresented in medicine.

As we continue to make medicine more inclusive, we should celebrate the trailblazers who came before us. Next time you find yourself walking down the hallway of Given, look at the large photo directly across from the entrance to the Office of Medical Student Education. There you will see Dr. Lang, a lone woman standing among her male classmates, distinguished by an enigmatic smile and holding a diploma with garlands of flowers, ready to embark on her career as a physician.

References

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