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Vol 56 No. 10 | Sept. 2004
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Wegener Researching Medical Women in Post-Civil War America

Frederick Wegener, an associate professor of English, is on leave in 2004 to research images of medical women in post-Civil War America thanks to a $50,000 publication grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

“Receiving this grant is a tremendous boon,” said Wegener, whose previous scholarship focuses on the work of Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and other American writers. “It’s a privilege to have this kind of time in which to pursue one’s research and to develop such a project, especially since the grant may be extended for a second year through calendar year 2005. It’s especially gratifying to me as someone who is not a physician, scientist or medical historian to be awarded a grant like this from the National Library of Medicine, as well as extremely validating for the project. It’s also quite humbling, in that I’m well aware of how many worthy projects there are out there that don’t get funded.”

Wegener thinks one reason for his recognition might be the rising role of the medical humanities.

“It’s a burgeoning field as the point where literature and medicine intersect,” he said. “Over the last 10 years, there has been an increasing interest in this conjunction.”

Tentatively titled Images of Medical Women in the United States, 1860-1920, Wegener’s book examines cultural representations of American medical women--in fiction, verse, dramatic writing, and visual media--from roughly the Civil War through World War I.

“These were the first generations of officially certified women physicians in the U.S.,” he explained. “Medical women were most often portrayed dealing with the diseases of women and children, who represented the primary focus of the practice of medicine by members of the first and second generations of women doctors. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of medical education and training for women in the second half of the 19th century, in fact, was the urgent need on the part of American women for physicians of their own sex. Such women were also occasionally depicted as surgeons, and there is often a pivotal scene in fiction of the period in which the woman physician comes to the aid of a male patient.”

The widespread circulation of images of medical women in a conservative era particularly interests Wegener. “The portrayals are largely affirmative, with remarkably few disparaging or satirical renderings of women as doctors,” he said. “Yet the medical establishment at that time remained predominantly hostile to women’s entry in medicine. I want to determine why the imaginative response was so favorable and why the figure of the woman doctor was so much more warmly welcomed in the cultural sphere.”

Wegener has taught American literature, among other literary subjects, at Boston University, Brandeis University, and Fordham University.

The post-Civil War era was a time when modern professions began to take root. “The service of women as nurses in the Civil War was instrumental in justifying their access to medical careers,” he said. “Women performed so competently as nurses that there was no reason why they shouldn’t make medicine their vocation.”

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