Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

February 3, 2018

Today we celebrate the 3rd annual National Women Physicians Day to honor the advances

women have made in medicine and the challenges still faced by women in the field. As I was

reading more about this day, I learned that it is the birthday of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first

female to obtain a medical degree in the U.S. Her acceptance into medical school started out asa practical joke but now about half of medical school students are women.

 

In the field of radiation oncology, there are a sizeable number of historical and contemporary

women physicians who have made practice-changing contributions. However, one notable

physician is Dr. Anna Hamann who was the first female radiation oncologist to practice in the

U.S. She was born in 1894 near Hamburg, Germany and completed her medical degree and

doctoral thesis on radiotherapy at the University of Munich. She studied physics under

Roentgen and conducted research with radium. She came to Chicago, Illinois as a fellow in 1938 where she eventually joined the faculty. Her presence was met with suspicion as many felt she was may have been a German spy due to her frequent trips home to visit family and because she had lost her fingerprints from her work with radium. After her resignation from the

University of Chicago, she continued her work at Northwestern University.

 

The challenges she faced were with regard to practice autonomy as she was not granted

admitting privileges and her treatments of patients were often discontinued by younger

physicians, even from other fields. Her authority was discounted and questioned and she was

able to secure a position where she was better respected and could practice freely. Similar

challenges were faced by other women in the field at that time, particularly in academic or

hospital-affiliated practices. Furthermore, the contributions in research and innovations in

clinical practice by these women pioneers were not recognized.

 

We have not attained complete equality in radiation oncology however, we are getting closer

thanks to women like Dr. Anna Hamann who came before us. As we celebrate this day, let us

remember the giants whose shoulders we stand on and their hard work in breaking barriers.

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