Fussell's folly: academic standards and the case of Mary Putnam Jacobi

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Abstract

In 1864, Dean Edwin Fussell of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania tried to prevent Mary Putnam (later the eminent physician Mary Putnam Jacobi) from graduating. He claimed she had not fulfilled the requirements, and that granting her degree would give critics ammunition for their charges that a medical school for women debased the standards of the profession. In his writings and speeches both before and after this incident, Fussell made clear his belief that women in medicine should be held to higher and stricter standards than those applied to men in order to win acceptance. Fussell's case against Putnam, documented in the Minute Books of the Faculty and Board of Corporators of the college, was resolved, but this conflict raises larger issues. According to evidence in these records and the words of Fussell and those who knew him, Fussell emerges as a weak individual in a position of power in a weak institution who understood only quantitative measures of competence. This leads to the proposition that weak leaders in weak institutions today may continue to impose disparate standards on women and thereby adversely affect their careers.

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