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Yale’s First Female Doctor

Ninety years ago, the Yale School of Medicine was poised to enroll women for the first time. Other universities had already gone coed: the University of Michigan in 1870, Johns Hopkins in 1893, Penn in 1914. The Yale medical school, stated its Bulletin in 1916, was willing to admit “a limited number of graduates of recognized colleges for women.” But there was a catch. The school had no women’s bathroom, and creating one would cost $1,000.

Into the breach stepped philanthropist and professor of economics Henry Farnam ’74. “I shall be glad to be responsible for meeting the expenses of suitable lavatory arrangements,” Farnam wrote to university president Arthur T. Hadley. He wasn’t just being magnanimous. His daughter, Louise Whitman Farnam ’16PhD, wanted to apply. And in the fall of 1916, with proper bathroom facilities in place, Louise, along with Lillian Lydia Nye and Helen May Scoville, joined 29 men in the Class of 1920. Based on alphabetical order, Farnam is considered the first woman to be admitted.


“Dr. Wilson was a great Christian personality, sunny, full of cheer, full of good sense.”

Louise had grown up in the family mansion on 43 Hillhouse Avenue, the address that later became the president’s house. A 1912 Vassar graduate, she had received her Yale doctorate in physiological chemistry in 1916. She would graduate from medical school at the top of her class. During her final year, she was encouraged by Dr. Edward H. Hume '97 to work in China. The Yale-in-China Association, founded in 1901, had established a hospital in Changsha in 1906, and Hume was one of the hospital’s leaders. “I feel as if Changsha needed, as never before, a woman physician to round out the staff now on hand,” Hume told her in a letter.

Farnam studied Chinese for a year in Beijing, and in 1921 joined the staff of the Hunan-Yale Hospital and the Hunan-Yale College of Medicine in Changsha. A 1933 Yale-in-China resolution said that her command of Chinese enabled her “both to mingle freely with patients and their families at the hospital and to command the respect of educated persons.” Beyond her growing achievements in treating patients and teaching, Farnam also wrote popular articles on her experiences—for this magazine, as well as for New Haven newspapers and the Yali Quarterly (the Yale-in-China Association’s official publication; the name “Yali” was based on an early Chinese transliteration of “Yale”).

The China Farnam sought to serve was in constant turmoil, as Nationalist and Communist forces jockeyed for power. In 1926 she took care of Nationalist general Chiang Kai-Shek “under rather trying circumstances for him, as he had to have a tooth pulled,” she wrote in the Yali Quarterly. “There is, however, no test of character quite equal to this, and Dr. Green, who did the pulling, and I felt that he was a very fine man with no lack of personal courage.” The tooth was probably pulled without anesthesia.

Foreigners were forced out of Changsha in 1927, and Farnam was among the last to leave, escaping on a British gunboat. She returned to New Haven, but only briefly; Chiang Kai-Shek took control of the entire country in 1928, and a year later, Farnam went back to Changsha.

In September 1930 war broke out again, and the Communists captured Changsha. The other foreign women on staff sailed from the city to safer areas of China, but Farnam stayed on the U.S. gunboat Palos to attend to a wounded sailor. As soon as “the Reds” departed, she returned to the hospital. At first dismayed by the damage, she was delighted to find that the Chinese staff had hidden almost everything of value before the invasion. They brought out the instruments and supplies, and the hospital quickly reopened.

In October 1931, Farnam married Hugh Brian Wilson of England, a manager of the Asiatic Petroleum Company in Changsha. She continued her medical work until 1933, when she moved to England with her husband. They raised two adopted children there, and she resumed her medical practice.

After her death in 1949, the Yale-in-China Association adopted a resolution that concluded: “More than achievement, more than honor received, Dr. Wilson was a great Christian personality, sunny, full of cheer, full of good sense. We wish to record our tribute to a great Christian doctor whose devotion to Yale-in-China and all its interests has been outstanding.”  the end


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