The First Women


In the 1920s, a few pioneers overcame obstacles built by tradition, bureaucracy, and their fellow students.


Five young women peer from the ragged, yellowed page of a dusty old 1926 year­book. Some of them don flapper outfits and bobbed haircuts, while others wear more traditional Vermont country garb. It’s odd to see them there: men inhabit almost every other picture. But in the fraternity section of this UVM Ariel, a band of five female students staked a small, resolute claim. The group picture (at left) is of Alpha Gamma Sigma, a medical society for women founded in 1924 — the same year the College of Medicine’s first female medical student com­pleted her studies. The time was ripe for such an event: just four years before, the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution had given women the vote. The doors to academia had been slowly nudging open for what was then called the “gentler sex.” These women slid through and never looked back.

The earliest female student at UVM first walked across a snowy University Green to class in the spring of 1872. At that time, UVM’s medical faculty vehemently opposed accepting women. In 1891 they had actually refused to sell lecture tickets to one woman. But in 1912 Dean Henry Tinkham, M.D., proposed practical reasons for admitting female students: the school needed tuition dollars and the state desperately needed more rural general practitioners. The idea was still too distasteful to the faculty and administration, however, and a decision on the matter was postponed.

By 1918, though, droves of men had been called to World War I. The shortage of students allowed Tinkham to resurrect the issue yet again, and in 1920 he commissioned a report on female admission to other medical schools all around the country. Pressure from Lieutenant Governor Abram Foote, whose daughter aspired to be a physician, legal advice from fellow board of trustees member Judge Edmund Mower, who shared his opinion that public colleges must accept all qualified citizens, and results showing that a majority of grade “A” medical schools around the country had female students, forced a vote by the medical school faculty. The vote in favor of admitting women came in March of 1920. Miss Estelle Foote of Middlebury, the Lieutenant Governor’s daughter, submitted the first application in May of that year.

With considerable administrative hurdles cleared, women then faced an even nastier challenge: their fellow students. An anonymous letter to the Vermont Cynic in the spring of 1920 insisted that women did not possess the “mental temperament or physical capabilities which are essential to the successful physician.” The student paper decided to print two letters in response, including one that reminded the protesters that Johns Hopkins University, one of the most revered medical schools in the country, had been admitting women since 1890 without ruining its reputation.

And so it happened that in the fall of 1920, after two years at UVM, Dorothy Lang quietly matriculated in the College of Medicine. Estelle Foote and Naomi Lanou followed Lang in 1921; Bertha Chase entered in 1922; and Doris Sidwell and Eloise Bailey began in 1923. All but Lang appear in the 1926 Ariel photo, as she had already graduated cum laude. The other five stand sternly together, each seeming to silently assert her presence in a world that had not yet acknowledged her equality.

Dorothy Lang, M.D.’24 and Naomi Lanou, M.D.’25 at the clinic she founded in 1952 in Ethiopia.

Dorothy Lang, M.D.1924 (left) and Naomi Lanou, M.D.1925, at the clinic she founded in 1952 in Ethiopia.


DOROTHY MARY LANG graduated from Peoples Academy High School in Morrisville in 1916, then packed her bags and headed to New York. She wanted to be an actress in the nascent film industry, and with her cherubic beauty and intrinsic cleverness she found some success. But after discovering that an old friend had been killed in World War I, her goals changed. “Ever since I found Howard’s name in the casualty list, I have been thinking what a slacker I was,” wrote Lang in her journal. “That I should be a moving picture actress while my dearest friends were giving their lives to make the world safe for democracy, suddenly seemed a cowardly occupation.”

Lang began working for the War Trade Board in New York City. She returned to Vermont, and by 1920 she had been admitted to the College of Medicine, and in 1924 she graduated, a small, smiling face in the class photo, peeking out from an enormous bouquet of flowers and a crowd of thirty-two tall, stern-looking men. Lang returned to New York after medical school, this time as a doctor. She worked at various hospitals in the city, Long Island, and Westchester, New York, where she met her husband Craig Bulger, who was also a doctor. The couple later moved to White Plains, where she, as a successful allergist and pedi­atrician, and her husband had a joint office. They and their children Craig and John lived above. “She absolutely loved medicine,” says her son John Bulger. “It was her life.” She died in 1955, of cancer, at age 56.

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NAOMI DELIA LANOU was born in 1898 in Burlington. After graduating from the UVM College of Medicine in 1925, Lanou became the first woman intern at Mary Fletcher Hospital. For the next ten years she worked as a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, New York, on staff at the Rutland Hospital, and in private practice in Rutland. In 1936, however, she was forced to close the practice. Her health had taken a turn for the worse, and she returned home to recuperate with her family.

After spending the next few years in Burlington, “she did an amazing thing,” says Janet Lanou, her niece. “At the age of 41 she entered a religious order, the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.”

The group was an international Catholic order founded in France, and Lanou worked for the next decade with deaf children in New York City and Chicago. Then, at the age of 52, she embarked on a mission to Ethiopia. In September of 1952 she arrived in Addis Ababa and opened a clinic for children. The six-foot tall Lanou, called “the Doctoress” by her patients, was the first woman doctor in the country.

In 1956 she traveled to the burgeon­ing city of Sao Paolo, Brazil, to open another clinic. In 1957, she journeyed to Rapid City, South Dakota, for the same reason; this time she ministered to members of the Sioux Nation. Lanou finally returned to New York City permanently in 1960, where she supervised the care of the elderly sisters and worked in the order’s school for deaf children. She died in 1973.

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BERTHA ALICE CHASE’s family was poor, and she left school fairly early to help her mother at home. She later returned and finished high school. Stirred to action by World War I, Chase decided her contribution would be in the field of medicine. A grant that helped fund her UVM education had one key condition: after internship, she must devote her newfound skills to missionary work. Since she was inclined in that direction anyway, she gladly accepted the grant and graduated in 1926. Chase journeyed to India in 1927 and didn’t return for good until 1939. Clara Swain Hospital, the first women’s hospital in India, became her home. “Last month we did about fifteen tonsillec­tomies, six or seven other minor operations, and two major abdominal operations,” Chase wrote in a letter to the Vermont Alumni Weekly in 1929.

In India, Chase met a Salvation Army officer, Wilkie Wiseman. She and Wiseman married early the next year. Chase finally returned to the States in 1939, and she eventually took a placement as a county health officer in rural Kentucky. She later opened an ophthalmology practice near Lansing, Michigan. She died at age 98.

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ESTELLE JULIA FOOTE was the last of eight children of a successful Middlebury businessman, Abram Foote, who later became lieutenant governor of the state. Estelle first pondered medicine as a young girl living in her family’s Cornwall farmhouse.

“When I applied for entrance to the Medical School of the University of Vermont,” Foote later recalled in a 1980 memoir, “I found two obstacles: Middlebury College had not prepared me for entrance to a class A medical school, and the UVM medical college was not open to women. So I attended UVM for a year, taking physics and organic chemistry, and my father, exerting some political pressure, persuaded the medical college to admit women. I entered medical college in the fall of 1921.”

In 1926 she graduated with Bertha Chase. After an internship at Memorial Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, Foote returned to Vermont and practiced medicine in Vergennes and Middlebury until her parents died in 1941. She then returned to Massachusetts and spent the next 22 years working for the state as a physician and psychiatrist. She retired and returned to Vermont in 1963 and died in 1997.

A section of the medical Class photo of 1924, showing Dorothy Lang, M.D., second from right.

A section of the medical Class photo of 1924, showing Dorothy Lang, M.D., second from right.

When DORIS MAY SIDWELL had a dream, odds were she’d make it come true. Born in Philadelphia in 1900 Sidwell grew up in the many New England towns and cities to which her father’s roving railroad foundry job took the family. One day in the 1910s she met Dr. Charles Eastman, a speaker at her church. Eastman, or Ohiyesa, his Native American name, was a member of the Sioux Nation from Canada. “After listening to Eastman, my mother just had an instant interest in Native Americans,” says Jane Witzel, Sidwell’s daughter. “He was an early role model.”

After surviving the 1918 influenza epidemic as a student nurse and graduating from nursing school the next year, Sidwell headed to UVM. After graduating, she completed her internship at Mary Fletcher Hospital and found a position at the Santee Normal Training School, a Native American missionary school in Santee, Nebraska. In 1929, in a Model A Ford she bought especially for the occasion, Sidwell drove alone from Massachusetts to Nebraska over mostly dirt roads and became the only doctor at a very remote boarding school.

While establishing the first on-site hospital, she met her future husband, Harry DeSmet Thompson. Thompson was Lower Brule Teton Sioux. They married in 1933. Sidwell later worked at Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts, and as the assistant superintendent of the Pineland Hospital and Training Center in Maine; a building there is now named for her. She retired in 1960, and died in August 1994 at the age of 94.

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Medicine was in ELOISE HELEN BAILEY’s genes. Daughter of a Tufts-educated doctor and a nurse from one of the first nursing classes at Mary Fletcher Hospital, she went straight to UVM after graduating from high school. There, Bailey was the first woman in her class to tackle the quandary of the working mother. She married Axel Peterson (UVM Class of 1923) while a junior medical student in 1926. She gave birth to her first child, Thalia, in 1927. With help from her parents, Peterson graduated one year late, in 1928, and continued to live on East Avenue in Burlington until 1940. She then worked as a psychiatrist at Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts and subsequently Norwich Hospital in Connecticut. Bailey next spent seven years at Camarillo State Hospital in California, returning in 1974 to Connecticut to retire. She died in 1984 at the age of 82.

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After the first six women graduated from the College of Medicine, not much changed for the next fifty years: Only one, two, or three female medical students typically completed medical studies in each class until the mid 1970s. Finally, by the mid-1970s the percentage of women increased to 22 percent. Today almost 60 percent of the College’s med students identify as female.

The first six pioneers, however, flourished back when most women hardly finished high school, let alone college and medical school. Their resolve was remarkable: three came from families with eight or more children, four endured cancer, and three reached age 90. Their trajectories were somewhat similar: three became missionaries, four became pediatricians, and three worked as psychiatrists. They all began in the same place, but crafted their own lives, each leading in its own distinct direction—from the Near East to the Midwest. On their unique paths through life, they touched and healed their patients while inspiring and motivating generations to come.

(Above) UVM’s Alpha Gamma Sigma society of 1926. Back row (left to right): Bertha Chase, Estelle Foote. Front row (left to right): Eloise Bailey, Naomi Lanou, Dorothy Sitwell.