The Study of Medicine in the French Capital


From the mid-1700s to the early 1900s Paris was an international center for scientific research and teaching. Many young students were drawn to the city, like Maria Sklodowska who left her home in Warsaw to study physics and math at the Sorbonne. After about a decade, she would achieve worldwide fame as Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, an honor she would repeat eight years later. Advances by researchers such as Claude Bernard and Louis Pasteur were revolutionizing the field of medicine and attracting young physicians to the French capital. Among those arriving in the nineteenth century were three notable Americans.

Poet, professor, and physician, Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with the same name, was himself a true Renaissance man. After studying law at Harvard, he began taking courses in medicine and at age twenty-four decided to study at the Sorbonne. A dedicated student, Holmes spent hours at the
Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital as well as learning the French language with a tutor. Still, while in the city from 1833 till 1835, he had time to enjoy what he termed “the paradise of Parisian life"the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, cafés and restaurants like Le Procope, the oldest café in the city which still stands on the rue de l’Ancienne Comédie in the 6th arrondissement. Holmes would go on to write an important paper about the cure for “childbed fever,” a frequent cause of maternal deaths at the time.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England but from age eleven grew up in the United States. Deciding to become a medical doctor, unheard of for women in the 1800s, she was rejected by twenty-nine schools before being accepted at Geneva Medical College in Upstate New York. Despite warnings about the “immorality” in Paris, Blackwell moved to the city to continue her studies after receiving her medical degree in 1849. The plague and cholera which raged in the capital at the time were, needless to say, unsettling when she first arrived. Another disappointment came when no medical school there would accept her unless she disguised herself as a man! Finally, she enrolled in midwifery courses at La Maternité de Paris Port-Royal where she excelled and taught others about Oliver Wendell Holmes's views on the causes of puerperal fever during childbirth. On rare free days Blackwell relished the “effervescence” of Paris—the Tuileries Gardens, the Louvre, the theatre, and shopping among other delights. 

A mere twenty years later Mary Putnam would become the first woman admitted to the École de Médecine in Paris…though it was not without a struggle. Holding degrees from the New York College of Pharmacy as well as from the Female Medical College in Philadelphia, Putnam rejected the idea of becoming a student at the "gloomy" midwife school when she arrived in Paris in 1866. She began realizing her quest to get into the all-male school of medicine by first receiving permission to sit in on lectures. After appealing directly to the Minister of Education, Putnam was allowed to take exams the following year and graduated with honors in 1871. Letters home tell of her trials at the Sorbonne's École de Médecine but also of the beauty of the city's architecture, statues, and fountains which she said "intoxicated" her at first sight.

These three people were but a few of the thousands of Americans who flocked to Paris to study medicine while learning the French language and appreciating all that the city had to offer. But they were remarkable, inspiring individuals who went on to achieve great things as physicians back home.

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