Cover of a bulletin with the 1964 convention schedule and a calendar graphic.

Mrs. Medicine: Doctors’ Wives and the Making of Modern American Health Care

Kelly O’Donnell, PhD will give the 7th annual Michael E. DeBakey Lecture in the History of Medicine on Thursday, September 21, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting and live-streamed on the NLM YouTube Channel. Dr. Kelly O’Donnell is Visiting Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Bryn Mawr College, and 2019 NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellow. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Photograph of a white woman in glasses posed outdoors.Kelly O’Donnell: I am a historian of medicine and gender in the modern United States. I recently started a new position as a Visiting Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Bryn Mawr College. I am originally from Philadelphia and its western suburbs (Delco, PA), so I am thrilled to be back home. I spent the past two years as a Lecturer in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University, which is also where I earned my PhD in 2015.

Classes just started, so I am settling in and decorating my office to make it feel cozier. It’s a gorgeous old building, and there is a fireplace, so that part isn’t hard! I am the modern Americanist in my department, but I contribute to our Health Studies program as well, so this semester I am teaching a History of Reproductive Health class and an American Health Politics seminar. I am also fortunate to be co-teaching our senior capstone course with a very generous colleague. (Working with seniors on their theses has always been my favorite.)

When I am not teaching, I am completing my first book on the history of the birth control pill and the debate in the 1970s over its potential side effects. I am eager to finally wrap that up and move on full-time to my next project, on the history of doctors’ wives in American medicine. I began research for this new project back initially in 2018 and was a DeBakey Fellow in 2019. It has been my motivation, my fun side hobby, and I am excited to share some of that research in this lecture.

When I am not teaching or researching, I am either in the kitchen concocting vegetarian dishes or out on a trail running very slowly.

CN: What initially sparked your interest in the history of medicine?

First page of a bulletin with many portrait photographs, articles and symbols.
The O.O.A. Auxiliary Bulletin, March, 1957
National Library of Medicine #19310070R

KO: I spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices growing up—not so much as a patient myself, but observing. When I was very young, my mother worked as a medical assistant for a couple of different doctors in Southwest Philly. They had these classic converted rowhouse offices on residential streets. Very old school, very different from the types of spaces I’d later encounter. To this day I am fascinated by physical spaces, setups, and fundamentally what health care practices look like in person (and how that can vary from place to place).

As I got into my preteen and teen years, both of my parents became seriously ill. My mother was no longer able to work. Much of her life revolved around visiting doctors to address her chronic pain and cardiovascular problems, then qualifying for disability. I also spent my sophomore and junior years of high school going to appointments with my dad, who passed away from liver disease when I was 16.

I never had any interest in becoming a doctor myself—I am notoriously squeamish. But when I got into studying the history of science and science and technology studies in college, I naturally gravitated towards medicine and health care. I had all these unique experiences and so many lingering questions from the people and practices I had encountered growing up. When I discovered the social history of medicine, a lightbulb clicked, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. So, I applied to PhD programs as a senior and the rest is history.

CN: Your talk, “Mrs. Medicine: Doctors’ Wives and the Making of Modern American Health Care,” explores the roles, expectations, and contributions of spouses of physicians in the twentieth century. How did the experience of spouses associated with the medical field differ from those in other segments of society?

A photograph of a banquet table with a podium and a group of women with teacups, with flower arrangements and fancy hats much in evidence.
Bulletin of the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Medical Association, September, 1959
National Library of Medicine #7503459

KO: That’s a great question, and one that I am hoping to answer more concretely as I get further into this research. On the one hand, you could say that medical marriages were very similar to others when it came to their participants’ professional identities, especially when you’re thinking about earlier in the 20th century or farther back into the 19th. In an era when married women—particularly of the middle and upper classes—did not work outside the home in the way that they do today, many types of marriages did essentially become family business arrangements. Women would perform all kinds of labor that later would become paid labor, from cleaning to bookkeeping to interacting with customers. So, in that way, if you’re thinking for example about a small private medical practice, that is a pretty standard family business configuration—and perhaps doctors’ spouses are simply more obvious or extreme versions of that vein in history of marriage.

On the other hand, I have been arguing that the role of “doctor’s wife” was much more distinct. Particularly once we get into the mid-twentieth century peak medical auxiliary organizing era, to be a doctor’s wife meant something particular, and it was an identity that a lot of women coalesced and organized around. As I’ll get into in my lecture, women’s medical auxiliaries (comprising of wives of physicians) viewed themselves as uniquely positioned between the medical profession and the community it served—as a conduit, a translator, a vital link in public health work. Doctors’ wives, regardless of their own professional backgrounds (as a nurse or teacher, for example), were seen as having their own type of special expertise because of their intimate knowledge of the profession from almost the inside. The best comparison would be something like a pastor’s wife. This begins to fracture in the 1970s with the rise of women’s labor force participation and the increasing expectation that they would have their own careers and independent professional identities. But for a few generations, there was a strong sense of this hybrid, spousal authority.

Medical marriages are also a really great window in the stressors experienced by those in the profession because you can see how things like increased residency training or the shift to more hospital based labor practices play out on a deeply personal scale.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

KO: One thing I quickly became really interested in is how physicians’ papers are donated to and organized in a given archive. When I started researching this project, that’s where I began—personal papers. That’s where historians typically begin. Spouses often play a major role in that process generally and I’ve found that ironically (or perhaps intentionally) their own lives and contributions tend to get obscured in these collections. In a typical collection of a physician’s papers, everything is hyper-focused on their career and their achievements in medicine. So, it is surprisingly difficult to find doctors’ wives in the archives of the history of medicine!

When you do, however, it is often in unexpected or surprising places. Sometimes you’ll find one box or one folder of “wife stuff” among dozens or boxes of article preprints or professional correspondence. In one box at the Drexel Legacy Center archives, I came across a few of these wife folders in a collection of a Women’s Med professor. It had some records of the faculty wives’ organization, some travel writing, and even some fictional short story drafts written by this woman. But extremely little about her as a person. It took some real digging, for example, to determine that she had been a nurse working abroad during WWI when she met her husband. It was a great example of how so often you’re told everything you’d ever want to know about the physician from the biographical material boxes or even the finding aid, but if you want to know anything about his wife, that’s on you to figure out. I do like a challenge, though.

CN: In the NLM collections you examined in particular the publications of medical women’s auxiliary groups, such as MD’s Wife, how did these publications support their readers?

Cover of a bulletin with the 1964 convention schedule and a calendar graphic.
Bulletin of the Women’s Auxiliary to the American Medical Association, March, 1964
National Library of Medicine #7503459

KO: These publications are so fascinating, and such underutilized resources. As the linked post attests, I did a real deep dive into them and their history while I was at the NLM (which, by the way, is the only place that has many of these preserved!). Organizational newsletters and periodicals have so much to offer.

MD’s Wife began as the Bulletin of the Women’s Auxiliary to the AMA, which largely reported on the activities of local and state level branches of the organization. They would also print conference proceedings when the national group met each year. At the time, this would have kept members at all levels around the country informed about what everyone else was doing, as well as given them a sense of broader identity to fuel their continuing volunteer work. For the history, of course, this provides a great record of what they were up to. Over time, the publication became more of a magazine style. So, you get more things like interesting feature stories and advice about how to cope with the stressors of being married to a doctor.

But it wasn’t just the national AMA auxiliary with a publication like this. NLM also has, for example, The Ohio Osteopathic Association Auxiliary Bulletin, The Quarterly (from the Kentucky State Medical Association’s auxiliary), and The Druggist’s Wife, from the Women’s Organization of the National Association of Retail Druggists (WONARD). It seems like any type of medical organization that existed—homeopaths, osteopaths, dentists, etc.—had a woman’s auxiliary at some point (probably the 1950s), and every woman’s auxiliary left some kind of newsletter or other trace behind. For the historian this is a goldmine of information allowing me to compare all kinds of practices and identities. If you have these sitting in your attic, don’t throw them out!

Kelly O’Donnell’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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