It is now recognized that the Harvard Chan School, then the Harvard-MIT School of Public Health, was the first school at Harvard to credential women on the same basis as men. Graduates earned a certificate in public health at this early school from 1913 until 1922 (when it was renamed the Harvard School of Public Health). Linda James, a member of the first class, was the first woman to earn this certificate in 1917. James was born in Minnesota in 1891 and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1914. She enrolled as a student at the Harvard-M.I.T. School for Health Officers, and earned her certificate of Public Health in 1917. She then took a position as the Director of After-Care Division at the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission. To learn more about Linda James, read “Lost and Found: The First Woman with a Harvard Credential.”
The Harvard-MIT School of Public Health boasts the first woman appointed to a faculty position at any Harvard school. Alice Hamilton was hired as assistant professor and created the Department of Industrial Medicine in 1919. Her appointment was in the faculty of medicine, but her responsibilities were in the Harvard-MIT School of Public Health. Although Dr. Hamilton was Harvard’s first woman professor, she was denied three professorial privileges: she could not participate in Commencement; she could not join the Harvard Club; and she was not given complimentary football tickets. Dr. Hamilton retired in 1935.
The Harvard Chan School also has the honor of being the first school on the Longwood campus to grant degrees to women students. Ann Hogue Stewart and Hester Balch Curtis were both awarded the Master of Public Health in 1936 during Harvard University’s 300th Anniversary. Although it was thought that the Harvard Corporation would bestow degrees upon women in 1936, in actuality, pressure from an influential pediatrician, Martha May Eliot, was why the women were awarded their degrees. Over twenty years later, in 1957, Dr. Eliot became the first woman full professor at the Harvard Chan School and the Chair of the Department of Child and Maternal Health.
Dr. Eliot, whose collection resides at the Scheslinger Library, was a pioneer in maternal and children’s health, the first woman president of the American Public Health Association, the only woman to sign the founding document of the World Health Organization, and the Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau. She taught at the Harvard Chan School until her retirement in 1960.
Women were allowed to attend the Harvard Chan School for degrees after Harvard Medical School opened itself to coeducation in 1945. Since 1994, women have consistently made up approximately 60% of the student body at the Harvard Chan School.
This content was authored by Heather Mumford, Harvard Chan Archivist, and Joan Ilacqua, former Archivist for Diversity and Inclusion. It was originally published on the Center for the History of Medicine's blog (now defunct) in October 2017. If you have additional questions or comments, please reach out to the Harvard Chan Archivist.