“Daddy, you know, had never heard of a woman doctor”
This blog post was written by SOHP Intern MaKayla Leak
The quote above can be found in SOHP’s collection entitled American Women in Medicine. This collection of interviews was conducted by SOHP’s founding director, Jacqueline Hall in 1972 and Sara Fowler in 1974. This collection provides listeners with personal accounts into the lives of the first women to attend medical school in the South. Since we are approaching the close of Women’s History Month, it is fitting to highlight a collection in the SOHP archives that celebrates the accomplishments of women who walked both this campus and others. As a woman studying science at UNC with aspirations of becoming a medical professional, the stories in this collection were more than inspiring to me.
After 1897, North Carolina women no longer had to travel outside of the South to obtain a four year degree that was comparable to that available to men. It was not until 1916 that women were admitted to the UNC School of Medicine. One hundred years later, women have done more than break the mold–they have created a new mold all their own. Today, the number of men and women enrolled is mostly proportionate, with women making up nearly 53% of the current UNC medical school cohort.
The interviews in this collection are eye-opening, personal, and tell the stories of a group of individuals that was, and in some instances still is, marginalized. While some interviews tell of accounts typical of the time period, others elaborate on specific instances. Ruth Henley’s interview is one in the collection that is particularly striking. In my opinion, Ruth Henley is a revolutionary and sassy southern woman that made an everlasting impact on this campus. For example, she recounted the lack of a “women’s johnny” inside the medical school. Ms. Henley, who attended UNC School of Medicine in 1932, discussed her frustration with having to cross the street to enter the zoology building just to use the restroom. She credits the construction of a women’s restroom in the medical school to her constant complaining of the unnecessary inconvenience. As the only woman in her medical school cohort, Ruth Henley was referred to by her male classmates as “Betty Co-ed.”
Henley was interviewed in Winston Salem at the practice she worked in at the time. Ms. Henley, who specialized in gynecology, told of women traveling from places like Charlotte, North Carolina, in order to be seen by a female physician. She mentioned how common it was to casually hear conversation around the office and elsewhere about how WOMEN were not fit to specialize in obstetrics or gynecology. Ruth Henley’s interview highlighted many issues facing women of her time. The stories told by Ruth Henley and others are the missing pieces of history that our project strives to expose.
With aims to shed light on the stories of women such as Ruth Henley, our very own field scholar, Taylor Livingston, has used the interviews from collections such as this one to create a tour of “The HER-story of Women at Carolina” with the UNC Visitors’ Center. As we celebrate women’s history in March and always, we must remember those who paved the way for women on campus today and henceforth. Women like Cora Zeta Corpening, the first woman to attend UNC School of Medicine, and Ruth Henley may not have been famous, but their lives and stories are nothing short of history.
To view more of the video clips created in collaboration with Taylor Livingston’s Women’s History walking tour of UNC, click here.