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Portrait of a 19th Century Physician-Writer
Women's History Month Lecture Offers View of Mary Putnam Jacobi

By Carla Garnett

NIH Photos by Karlton Jackson, NLM

On the Front Page...

In this era of so-called plain language, Dr. Mary Putnam probably would have been considered a terrible medical writer. Simple sentences were foreign to her. Multi-syllabic, highly technical words were her friends. Elaborate detail and redundancy, her trademarks. That could have been because she had her own ideas about communicating complex concepts. She understood what she was describing and she wanted her audience to know she understood. Often, Putnam — a young female physician in a male-dominated field in the 19th century — was writing chiefly for respect, legitimacy and acceptance by her colleagues. By the time her career would peak, however, she had honed her craft. Her later writing was so rich with description and vivid with insight that much of her prose could be called a "speaking picture."


According to Dr. Susan Wells, an English professor at Temple University and guest lecturer for NLM's Mar. 29 Women's History Month observance, Mary Putnam was not the first person to explore the connection between visual image and verbal image.

Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi

"Since the Renaissance," Wells acknowledged, "creative writers and artists have been interested in the relation between written text and pictures. Both were seen as ways of doing lively instruction that both delights and educates. The two genres were often presented as interchangeable — an exceptionally vivid or provocative picture as a 'speaking picture,' or a very good poem could hope to work up a reader's imagination as if it were a picture."

Of Varmint and Verse

In her lecture titled "Mary Putnam Jacobi and the Speaking Picture," Wells said the physician-scientist's career in medicine most likely began with "a big dead rat."

At age 9, Mary made a discovery in her family's stables. A large rodent lay dead on the ground in a corner. What would its heart look like? she wondered. At once grossed out and intrigued by her find, Mary decided to approach her mother with a proposal. Wouldn't it be interesting, the youngster asked, if I cut open the rat and was able to see the heart? Far less curious and far more disgusted, her mother immediately nixed Mary's first attempt at exploratory surgery. Later Mary would confess in a 1902 family memoir that she was "excessively relieved at the forcible delay in her anatomical studies."

"That was one of the very few times on record that Mary Putnam was ever dissuaded from seeing anything she was interested in seeing by someone telling her it was an inappropriate thing to do," said Wells, author of Out of the Dead House, a recently published book on 19th century women physicians and scientific writing. "But, it was a long detour until she could fulfill her appetite for the sight of an interior of the body, a long detour until she persuaded her parents to let her leave home and attend the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania."

Dr. Susan Wells of Temple University

An enthusiastic and well-versed lecturer herself, Wells painted a fascinating portrait of a brilliant, but somewhat eccentric scientist, educated far beyond most of her colleagues — male or female — and led into the profession of scientific research primarily by her own unlimited curiosity.

Born in 1842 to the wealthy Putnams of G.P. Putnam's Sons publishing fame, and blessed with a natural intelligence and an indomitable spirit, Putnam nevertheless was "the patron saint of bad students," Wells said. Putnam found it difficult to sit through the same lectures repeatedly and often grew impatient with the curriculum requirements prescribed for the time's medical scholars. Still, she passed each exam, wrote an acclaimed thesis and earned her credentials.

Pictures Drawn by Prose

By 1868, with one medical degree already under her belt, Putnam was continuing her medical education in Paris, attending every scientific lecture she could walk to, and writing extensively and anonymously — for the prestigious New York Medical Record — reports that contain arguably "the best images that we have of 19th century Parisian medicine." No stranger to the literary world given her family history, she'd had her first short story published at age 16 and had seen her byline in the Atlantic Monthly before age 18. To support herself in culturally fertile Paris, she was moonlighting as a journalist and penning fiction, political essays and even features on fashion.

Perhaps it was her facility and interest in myriad genres, arts and sciences that enhanced her science writing. Although there is no evidence that Putnam had talent in such traditional fine arts media as painting or drawing, Wells said Putnam's "medical writing was always marked by vivid and precise description, and by formal experimentation as she developed new ways of presenting complex information." This made her prose not only invaluable and compelling to other physicians, but also evocative and stirring to nonscientists who read them. Among the significant research strategies she pioneered was the use of survey data in medical writing.

"Throughout her medical life, Mary Putnam found ways of indulging her desire to see," Wells said. "As time went by, she made fewer and fewer concessions to the convention that ruled a searching medical gaze inappropriate for women."

After gaining her second medical degree in France, Putnam — born in London, but reared in New York — returned to the United States to practice medicine and teach at Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell's Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. The year was 1871. She had survived the Siege of Paris and wartime miseries, and had come to see her education and training for the anomaly among females that it was. Many of her students, however, failed to appreciate her innovative lectures and creative teaching methods, preferring instead the conventional, structured education offered by most professors.

NLM Deputy Director Kent Smith opens the question and answer session with Wells.

In 1873, she married German physician Abraham Jacobi, who is considered the founder of pediatrics in America. Constantly encountering the era's conventions that often barred scientific pursuits to women, Putnam Jacobi added social and political activism to her endeavors, organizing the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women and becoming an outspoken advocate for women scientists.

Imagination and Truth

She continued her scientific research, her medical practice, her participation in women's rights movements, and her idiosyncrasies — inexplicably, she and her husband called their daughter by two different names, Marjorie and Margaret, for example. Still, it is her medical writing — stunning in its colorful insight at the time — that eventually brought her the renown and inclusion by her peers that she had sought as a youthful M.D.

"Such an impression is made by the human foetus," Putnam wrote in a journal in 1871, "with its immense head, its exaggerated nervous system, its shapeless powerless limbs, its huge uncouthness in which like pearls hidden in a mantle of rough skin lie concealed unlimited possibilities of power and beauty and grace."

Readers were shocked, Wells reported. Accustomed to the depressing, fusty and political themes that other writers used to characterize wartime Paris, the journal's patrons could not stop remarking on the refreshing nature of — and sense of hope in — Putnam's eloquent observation of embryonic life.

"Putnam Jacobi often thought of knowledge as something to be taken in by sight," Wells concluded, "but when she herself was producing knowledge she would usually produce it as something to be read...For [her] truth was neither on the surface nor beneath the surface. Truth was on the move. Truth was what happened when the experimenter interacted with the subject. The medical truth that Putnam Jacobi sought in these verbal images and speaking pictures was the truth about the tempo and structure of complex processes."

Throughout Putnam Jacobi's life, Wells observed, knowledge she pursued had often been limited by convention, but not before her "imagination of a new sight — a sight that would produce knowledge — had been given a very free rein."

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