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October 12, 2014
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
Room Room 244
Changing Times: The World Wars and Women Physician Anesthetists*
Selma H. Calmes, M.D.
UCLA School of Medicine, Los Angeles, California, United States
Surprisingly, women MDs found opportunities in the developing specialty of anesthesiology from 1900-1940. Surgeons accepted female physicians, who were thought to be submissive, accepting of lower (or even no) pay and they had medical training that could help surgery advance_in contrast to nurse anesthetists. Women MDs had fewer practice opportunities and 17 women’s medical schools and 8 women’s hospitals were comfortable locations for training. Three women were presidents of the most important anesthesia organization between 1922-1930, women were the first residents in many training programs and they were even chairs of anesthesiology departments in major hospitals.

In WW I, women physicians were “not citizens” of the US, because they could not yet vote. So, they could not enlist or be commissioned. Increasing casualties led to a desperate need for physician anesthetists and in March, 1918, they were allowed to serve as contract physicians. This meant the woman had to pay their own transportation to the station and room and board, provide their own uniform, accept a lower salary and they had no command authority. Women physician anesthetists were specifically recruited. Sixteen women MD anesthetists were contract surgeons providing anesthesia; 11 served overseas and 2 were in front line positions. Women MD anesthetists were the only women MDs sent to Europe.

World War II marked significant changes for women MD anesthetists. All but one of the 17 women’s’ medical colleges, which generated women MDs, had closed. There were fewer medical schools overall, down from 166 in 1904 to 76 by 1930. Most now imposed quotas for women and other minorities. Baccalaureate degrees were increasingly required, which proved economically difficult for many women. There were 7,708 women MDs in the US in 1940, fewer than there were in 1910. The increasingly important internships often excluded women, as did anesthesia residencies. Half of the 33 anesthesia residencies listed in the 1940 AMA’s Directory of Physicians now excluded women.

Women could not enlist until April 1943, when the Sparkman-Johnson Bill passed, allowing women to serve in the Army and Navy Medical Corps. This was the result of an intensive national campaign focusing on the suitability of women MDs for the specialty of anesthesia and on 2 women MD anesthetists in particular, Dr.s Virginia Apgar at Columbia and Alice McNeal of Rush Medical College. Articles appeared in the New York Times and Time magazine, and union and charitable organizations offered support. Only 4 women MDs were Army anesthesiologists in WW II, out of 76 female commissioned medical officers. The Navy commissioned 57 female MDs, and only 2 were anesthesiologists. Only one of the 6 women serving as anesthesiologists continued in anesthesia after WW II, in contrast to the many men entering the specialty.

WW II then marked the beginning of a decline in women MDs’ presence and leadership in anesthesiology. This continued until the increase in women entering medical school that began in 1972 when Title IX of the Higher Education Act passed. This led to a large increase in the number of women entering medical school and, by a “mass effect,” anesthesiology.1

*”Physician-anesthetists” was used pre-WW II to designate MDs specializing in anesthesia. After WW II, “anesthesiologist” came into use.

1. Calmes SH. A history of women in American anesthesiology. In Eger EI, Saidman LJ, Westhorpe RN, eds. The wondrous story of anesthesia. (Springer, New York) 2013. Pp 185-203

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