Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
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.