members of the Class of 1921 of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

VP&S Marks 100 Years of Women MD Graduates

New York Times headline from 1921 announcing first women to graduate from Columbia's medical school
New York Times subscribers can see the May 29, 1921, issue of the newspaper in the TimesMachine.

When Columbia granted MD degrees to women for the first time 100 years ago, the historical significance was noted by the New York Times. On Page 14 of the May 29, 1921, edition, the newspaper devoted a full column to the milestone, amid articles about a car accident, a fatal tenement fire, the theft of 17 motor cars, and a reduction in prices on all Buick models.

The headline, “New Columbia Era on Graduation Day,” was followed by language that revealed contemporary references to women: “This year marks a new era in the progress of the fair sex at Columbia University. On June 1, Commencement Day, for the first time in the university's history, the Hippocratic oath will be administered to women with the conferring of degrees on the graduates of the College of Physicians and Surgeons.”

The six women to graduate that day included three women who finished in the top five of the class: Gulli Lindh Muller, who graduated first in the class (the Times article said that meant she received an A in every course in her senior year); Susanna Haigh (No. 3 in the class), and Emma Corwin (No. 5). The other three women to receive MD degrees that year among the class of 117 were Dorothea Curnow, Elizabeth Wright, and May Mayers.

photo of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons Class of 1921
Six of the 10 women admitted to the medical school in 1917 are pictured in this photo, one of several taken of the class that fall to help faculty match faces and names. The class began with 213 members but was down to 162 by the next year, including seven of the women. Photo provided by Archives and Special Collections, Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Since that June 1, 1921, graduation day, the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, as it is now known, has graduated more than 3,300 women, including the 82 women in the Class of 2021. This year’s class—like recent classes—is majority women, and the entire enrollment of VP&S has more women than men.

Columbia did not admit women until several years after other schools opened their doors to women. The University of Michigan medical school was the first in the United States to admit women, welcoming its first female student in 1870. Johns Hopkins followed in 1893 and Cornell in 1898. By 1904, 97 of 160 U.S. medical schools admitted women. That percentage grew over the next decade.

photograph of Gulli Lindh Muller, 1921 graduate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
Gulli Lindh Muller started a months-long campaign—capped by an anonymous $50,000 check from a Texas gentleman—that finally persuaded P&S Dean Samuel Lambert to open the doors of Columbia's medical school to women in 1917.

Gulli Lindh Muller, MD'1921, is credited with opening the medical school's doors to women at Columbia. As a Barnard College senior nearing graduation in 1917, Gulli Lindh (she married during medical school), with the support of Barnard Dean Virginia Gildersleeve, began a campaign to apply to medical school at Columbia, even though she had accepted a spot at Johns Hopkins. Several months later—after an effort that included letter writing, in-person meetings, a challenge to raise money to pay for accommodations for women, and an anonymous check from a Texas gentleman—P&S Dean Samuel Lambert finally agreed to allow women to apply.

Muller and nine other women started medical school in 1917. The six women who graduated four years later represented a little over 5% of the Class of 1921. Although the percentage of women in graduating classes remained small for several decades following the first class, by 2021, the graduating class at VP&S is nearly 53% women.

References

Read more in “Gentle Persistence: 2021 Marks Centennial of First Six Women to Earn a Columbia MD” by Danny McAlindon in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Columbia Medicine magazine.