Special Session honors women pioneers in surgery

Mary H. McGrath, MD, MPH, FACS
Mary H. McGrath, MD, MPH, FACS

When the American College of Surgeons (ACS) was founded in 1913, only five women were recognized as Fellows. Today, women account for more than 5,200 of the College Fellowship, and that number is growing.

During a Clinical Congress 2019 Special Session, Women Pioneers in Surgery, a distinguished panel of women surgeons celebrated the stories of the first five women Fellows, as well as the stories of some of the other women whose dedication and drive to learn and practice the art of medicine helped pave the way for today’s women surgeons.

“When we think about the stories of these pioneers, not only did they overcome great odds to obtain their medical schooling and surgical training, they overcame significant resistance on the part of the people around them and the society they lived in,” said ACS Foundation Board of Directors Chair Mary H. McGrath, MD, MPH, FACS, professor of surgery, division of plastic and reconstructive surgery, University of California, San Francisco. Dr. McGrath co-moderated the session with Hilary A. Sanfey, MB, BCh, FACS, professor of surgery, Southern Illinois University, Springfield.

“It’s important to hear and understand the stories of the people who came before us, to preserve their stories, and pass them down to those who are coming after us,” Dr. McGrath said. “Their stories can inspire us to take action in our own lives. Knowing that these women surgeons worked the hardest for their positions can teach us to handle our own challenges with strength and equanimity.”

Kimberly A. Davis, MD, FACS, professor of surgery and chief, division of general surgery, Yale University, New Haven, CT, shared the story of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919), who is considered the first woman surgeon employed by the U.S. Army. Dr. Walker initially made her name as a battlefield surgeon during the Civil War and to this day is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. In addition to her medical accomplishments, Dr. Walker was a dedicated advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s right to vote.

“Mary Walker truly exemplified a woman who was not satisfied with who she was and the current state of the environment in which she lived, and she worked hard and successfully to change it,” Dr. Davis said. “In addition to her remarkable military career, she was a staunch advocate for women’s rights for her entire life. Tragically, she passed away in 1919 at the age of 86, just one year before the passage of the 19th Amendment, for which she had advocated so strongly. Fittingly, the ACS inaugurated the Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award several years ago.”

Robin S. McLeod, MD, FACS, professor of general surgery, University of Toronto, ON, followed with a tribute to Jennie Smillie Robertson (1878–1981), considered to be the first woman surgeon in Canada and the first surgeon to perform major gynecological surgery in Canada.

Susan E. Pories, MD, FACS, associate professor of surgery, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, MA, followed with a discussion of Matilda Arabella Evans (1872–1935), who is considered to be the first underrepresented minority woman surgeon in the U.S. Among her accomplishments, Dr. Evans founded The Negro Health Journal of South Carolina and was elected president of the Palmetto State Medical Society and vice-president of the National Medical Association. During World War I, she was appointed to the Volunteer Medical Service Corps.

Carol Scott-Conner, MD, PhD, FACS, emeritus professor of surgery and emeritus chair, department of surgery, Carver College of Medicine, University of Iowa, Iowa City, and a pioneer in surgery herself, concluded the session with a tribute to the first five women Fellows of the ACS: Alice G. Bryant, AB, MD; Emma V.P.B. Culbertson, AB, AM, MD; Florence W. Duckering, MD; Jane D. Kelly Sabine, AB, MD; and Mary Almira Smith, AM, MD, ScD.

“This was a remarkable group of women at the remarkable time period of the founding of the American College of Surgeons,” Dr. Scott-Conner said. “The common elements between these five women is that they practiced in the same geographical area, and they all had staff privileges at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. I believe they are the first female networking group in medicine, and their success in attaining fellowship in the first year of the College is a tribute to networking and helping each other—a lesson that resonates today as strongly as ever.”