Generations of ‘women for others’ found their calling at the Georgetown University Medical Center. Rather than waiting for cultural mores to evolve, they moved forward with tenacity and vision, paving the way for women’s progress in health and medicine around the world.
By Patti North
Annie Rice, MD, (1853-1884) and Jeanette Sumner, MD, (1846-1906) were the first female students to enroll at Georgetown University, joining the School of Medicine in 1880. After only one year, both transferred to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania where they earned medical degrees in 1883. A month later, the two doctors returned to Washington, D.C. to establish the Women’s Dispensary, serving the area’s impoverished women and children.
Rice died the following year of a chronic heart condition. Sumner maintained her connections with Georgetown, marshaling resources from friends, faculty, and alumni to expand health and medical services for women and children in need. She died in 1906 and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
The first women graduates of Georgetown University, pictured with hospital administrator Sister Pauline, O.S.F., received their diplomas in 1906 from the newly founded Georgetown University Hospital Training School for Nurses. The school’s first students, all female, enrolled three years earlier in 1903. As graduates, they helped open the door for others to learn in what is now the Georgetown School of Nursing & Health Studies, and they helped pave the way for other female students to attend Georgetown as each of its schools became integrated. The 1906 graduation announcement in The Washington Post included highlights of the Gaston Hall ceremony along with the names of the eight women: Edith Merry, Elizabeth Hemler, Lillie Crumbaugh, Lillian Welker, Grace McCarthy, Lela Montgomery, Sister Mary Jane, O.S.F., and Sister Mary Baptista, O.S.F.
Sofie Nordhoff Jung, MD, (1864-1943) became the first female appointed to a teaching position at Georgetown School of Medicine in 1923, as an instructor in gynecology. The prospect of hiring women faculty first arose in 1913, but the school’s leadership decided that it would be “improper” to have female physicians instructing male medical students. Born in Prussia, Nordhoff Jung emigrated to the United States and earned her medical degree at Columbian School of Medicine (now George Washington University Medical School) in 1893, and practiced at D.C.’s Columbia Hospital for Women.
She was a prominent Washington physician and civic leader, as was her husband, Dr. Franz Jung. Both had studied medicine in Germany and had received many honors from the German government for their civic service. During World War I, she helped organize the American Red Cross in Germany and Bavaria. She also helped establish an American hospital in Munich, and studied under Louis Pasteur in Paris. She was honored by Georgetown on Founders Day in 1934 with “the highest insignia of the Angelo Secchi Academy of Science with letters patent, sealed with the Great Seal of the University.” She died in 1943 and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Sarah Elizabeth Stewart, MD, PhD (M’49) (1905-1976) was the first woman to graduate from Georgetown School of Medicine.
Born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and an American father, Stewart earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago in 1939. She worked in a lab and studied viruses at NIH, joining the faculty of Georgetown School of Medicine in 1944 as an instructor in bacteriology. In 1947 she began coursework as a second-year medical student (alongside five other women admitted that year), earning her MD in 1949.
How did her male classmates treat her? “They had to be nice to me. I was their instructor,” she explained to The Washington Post in 1964.
After an internship at the United States Public Health Service Hospital in New York, she went to work at the National Cancer Institute, launching the research for which she would earn international acclaim. In the face of intense skepticism in the scientific community that viruses could cause cancer, she pioneered the field of viral oncology, in collaboration with her colleague Bernice Eddy. They produced cancer in mice from a virus they had grown in tissue culture, which they named the SE-polyoma virus—SE for Stewart and Eddy, and polyoma meaning many-tumored. Stewart went on to make seminal contributions to the identification of other agents, including herpes simplex, Burkitt’s, and C type viruses.
Sister Eileen Niedfield, MD (M’51), (1920-2007) was part of the first School of Medicine class including women when she enrolled in 1947. A member of the Medical Mission Sisters, she was known to many as Sister Frederic. She graduated valedictorian of the Class of 1951, and received a gold medal for the highest scholastic average in bacteriology.
After Niedfield completed her surgical residency at Georgetown, the sisters assigned her to their Holy Family Hospital in Mandar, India, in a famine-struck region of Rajasthan. In a December 1953 article in the Post, she said of her work, “I love it. I don’t even want to come home. It is so much more satisfactory to be where you are needed.”
She served the area as surgeon for four decades, working in remote rural areas, and training local schoolteachers and agricultural workers in basic medicine and health care. She even trained a border post radio operator working in an area so remote that no professionals could reach it during the winter. She was known, if needed, to suspend an operation in order to draw a unit of her own type O blood to transfuse the patient before continuing with the surgery.
In 1992, she returned to the U.S. to care for AIDS patients in San Diego. She passed away in 2007.
Estelle Ramey, PhD, (1917-2006) was born in Detroit and grew up in Brooklyn. She entered college at age 15, and earned a master’s in chemistry at Columbia and a doctorate in physiology from the University of Chicago in 1950. In 1956 she joined the faculty at the School of Medicine, focusing her research on the relationship of the endocrine and nervous systems, including how hormones condition individuals to make appropriate responses to stress situations.
In 1970, history called. Edgar Berman, a prominent Democratic Party advisor and surgeon, publicly declared women to be unfit to hold high office because of their “raging storms” of hormonal imbalance. Using her scientific expertise, Ramey sharply refuted him in a letter published in the Washington Evening Star. The National Women’s Press Club hosted a debate between the two, in which the Post reported that Ramey “mopped the floor” with Berman. He opened with “I really love women.” She responded, “So did Henry VIII.”
Winning the debate kicked off a new career for Ramey as a sought-after lecturer and social commentator. It also influenced her research. She wrote and spoke widely about how the women’s movement might benefit men, who continued to suffer more disease than women and typically predecease them. “My research is a form of extreme altruism; I’m trying to find out how to keep men alive longer,” she quipped.
Women need to be willing to make waves to make a difference, Ramey asserted. When the new anatomy textbook arrived on campus in 1972, it featured lewd text and suggestive photos of female anatomy. Ramey successfully fought to have it pulled from the market. In a profile published by the Journal of American Medical Association in June 1982, she said, “If you don’t want to stick your head above the foxhole, then nobody’s going to bother you very much. But you may remain an assistant professor for the rest of your life, and everyone’s going to think you’re a real sweet girl.”
She appreciated the many men who supported women scientists over the years, including her husband James, Atomic Energy Commissioner. “There have always been men who have not been blinded by gender when they’re looking at quality,” she told JAMA. “There just haven’t been enough of them.”
Ramey passed away in 2006. Her obituary in the Post noted, “Her wit was rooted in statistics, scientific research, and personal experience with discrimination.” Her memorial service featured remarks by both Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as numerous members of the medical school faculty.
She often said her epitaph should read: “I am my sister’s keeper.”