Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 483:
DOROTHEA ERXLEBEN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 483.

Today, we meet Germany's first woman doctor. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Come with me to Quedlinburg, Germany. The year is 1715. A little girl, Dorothea, is born to the rebellious town doctor. She's bright, and he complains that gifted women's talents are being wasted in the kitchen.

He arranges for Dorothea to go with her brother Tobias to a tutor. Tobias prepares to study medicine. She follows, line by line. Finally, her father petitions Frederick the Great to let her join Tobias at the University of Halle.

Under Frederick's rule, several women gained honorary membership in the Prussian Academy of Sciences. His enlightened Department of Intellectual Affairs grants the request.

Now trouble begins. First, a pamphleteer argues that it's illegal for women to be doctors. About this time, Dorothea marries Deacon Erxleben. As the argument heats up, she becomes stepmother to his five children. Then she bears four more of her own.

She publishes a rejoinder to the pamphlet: Inquiry into the Causes Preventing the Female Sex from Studying. Her father writes an introduction. He supports her case with Biblical sources. She's less inclined to such theoretical grounds. What women need, she says, are books and entry into schools.

Before she can start school, war breaks out. Tobias is drafted. It's out of the question for a woman to attend university alone. But she keeps on studying medicine. She learns from books and from her father. By the time he dies, she's well qualified. She even writes a dissertation.

Now she begins practicing medicine to pay off debts. Regular doctors hound her until her first patient dies. Then they bring charges against her for practicing without a license and for witchcraft. They flatly say she threatens the monopoly they hold by God and by law. Dorothea snaps back:

"Fine! Here's my dissertation. Let me defend it at the university. Let me take the exams." Officials debate for a year. Can a woman, so often pregnant, practice medicine? Are women really intelligent enough to be doctors? Finally they let her take the exams. She passes with flying colors. Now we read her dissertation. Too many doctors, she claims, overtreat illness -- they jump in too quickly with purgatives and opiates.

That is how Dorothea Erxleben became Germany's first woman doctor. And Germany was friendlier than most countries were to women. So what happened now that she'd opened the door? Could others follow? They could not. The next woman doctor graduated from Halle in 1901. And on that cheerful note, I leave you until next time.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Schiebinger, L., The Mind Has No Sex? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989, Chapter 9.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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