By Kelly O’Donnell ~
MD’s Wife, a glossy, colorful women’s magazine in the 1960s and 1970s, promised relevant and engaging content to “the women behind the great men of medicine.” For most of the twentieth century, some version of the same magazine (under different names) reported on AMA conferences, encouraged readers to write their Congressmen, and offered advice for coping with the unique challenges of being married to a doctor.
This was the long-running publication of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the American Medical Association, which appeared in different forms and underwent many changes between the 1930s and the 1990s. Naturally, while a DeBakey Fellow this past summer at the NLM, I read every single issue. While it took nearly three full weeks, it was well worth the effort. Reading MD’s Wife (in all its iterations) with a critical eye reveals a goldmine of information about the social and cultural transformations of American medicine.
Its style, editorial direction, and very name evolved over the decades, alongside its parent organization and the culture of American medicine more generally. Established in the late 1930s as the Bulletin of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the American Medical Association, it first served as a newsletter reporting on the Auxiliary’s local, state, and national political activities. It then had a mid-1960s makeover, transforming into MD’s Wife, with human-interest stories and advertisements targeting a population of presumed housewives and socialites. In the late 1970s, in response to the increase in women physicians and in the wake of the women’s movement, it became the gender-neutral Facets. The Auxiliary itself also dropped “Woman’s” from its name. In the mid-1990s, the magazine was changed once again to the AMA Alliance Today, reflecting a complete overhaul of the organization’s identity.
MD’s Wife is by far my favorite era of this unusual periodical. Publishing in this form between 1965 and 1977, the magazine sits chronologically right in the middle of profound social changes for American women. In the pages of this magazine we glimpse not just the shifting social expectations of doctors’ wives, but also clear documentation of a postwar golden age of women’s medical political organizing, followed by a decline in Auxiliary membership and the rise of confusion and pessimism about the state of medical marriages (indicated by an obvious uptick in marital advice articles in the 1970s).
But it would not, of course, be a true glossy women’s magazine without some excellent targeted advertisements. The MD’s Wife years saw the greatest number of ads crafted specifically with doctors’ wives as potential consumers in mind.
“People notice things about doctors’ children,” warned one 1966 full-page advertisement for pHisoHex, an antibacterial skin cleanser sold here to tame teenagers’ acne. It was, in fact, “the same pHisoHex their dad uses in his office and at the hospital,” repurposed here for home use in an expanded consumer market. After all, the ad claimed, “doctors’ children get special scrutiny.” As a sort of first family in the community, doctors’ wives and their children would be not only more visible, but held up as exemplars of health and hygiene. Mrs. MD, the ad heavily implied, had a special obligation to rid her medical offspring of such unsightly conditions.
A two-page “Sun Fun” spread in 1967 featured the latest swimsuits. The fashionable doctor’s wife selecting one of these one-pieces or tasteful bikinis would be “all set for off-hour sunning when (only a few months from now, really) the sun will be shining on [her] by the beautiful see in Atlantic City.” Next to a blonde model showing off a pink-with-daisies two-piece, the text asks, “You’ll be there for the AMA convention in June, won’t you?”
A 1966 Fleischmann’s Margarines ad managed to perfectly capture the ambiguous medical expertise that doctors’ wives were expected to have (or not have). “In the kitchen, you’re the doctor,” it says boldly in a huge font size. In smaller text, however, Fleischmann’s makes clear that their audience should still defer to their physician husband’s wisdom: “Ask your husband whether you should change the proportion of fats in your family’s diet. Ask him also to send for Fleischmann’s free literature on modified-fat and low-sodium diets. And try some Fleischmann’s… it’s delicious!”
By the late 1970s, the style of the magazine and especially its name began to annoy many of its younger targeted audience members. As the magazine’s editor Ludel B. Sauvageot asked in her Spring 1976 message to readers, “Where do we go from here?” “Wives under 35 doubtless have different answers from those given by their over-35 counterparts,” she mused. Two issues later, in September of that year, she announced, “MD’s Wife is not descriptive of today’s auxilian or of today’s auxiliary.” By the next issue, it was Facets.
My experience reading this publication across more than half a century revealed many such generational differences. But there was at least one major continuity throughout that period, which remains true today: the spouses of physicians are a unique population that yields exciting insights into the history of American medicine.
Watch Dr. O’Donnell’s NLM History Talk on September 23, 2023 on the topic of “Mrs. Medicine: Doctors’ Wives and the Making of Modern American Health Care.” Watch previous NLM History Talks in the NIH Videocast Archive, and stay informed about about future ones on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.
Kelly O’Donnell, PhD, is Adjunct Professor, College of Humanities and Sciences, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA. Dr. O’Donnell was an NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellow in the History of Medicine in 2019. She can be found online @KellyODonn.