Our First Female Physicians

World War II was a turning point for women in the workforce of the United States.

Rosie the RiveterThe now-iconic image of Rosie the Riveter was emblematic of the patriotic need for women to enter the industrial labor workforce due to widespread male enlistment in the war.

Between 1940 and 1945, females in the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent. By 1945 nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.

But opportunity wasn’t limited to factories; hospitals, too, felt the impact of war.

At Henry Ford Hospital, many staff joined the war effort in some capacity – 182 physicians, 105 nurses and 60 other personnel members.

While the decline in hospital workforce during World War II did not have the same effect as World War I (where the hospital was left unable to function and turned over to the Army for use, as previously discussed on Doc in the D), it undoubtedly had an impact on hospital operations.

Most notably, the war created a tremendous nursing shortage.

By 1942, roughly 10,000 nurses across the country served in the war. And more were still needed at home and abroad.

The war years also opened up other medical positions for women – many of whom joined the Henry Ford Hospital staff.

In 1943, female physicians first joined Henry Ford Hospital’s Departments of Internal Medicine and Surgery.

According to Henry Ford Hospital’s Sladen Library News, the Department of Surgery Annual Report documents that Dr. McClure stated about this change:

“Women interns were accepted for the first time in the history of the hospital owing to the shortage of male interns. This radical departure from previous procedure has so far been very satisfactory.”

Among Henry Ford Hospital’s first female physicians: Dr. Magda E. Puppendahl and Dr. Dorothy Finley, both with the Department of Surgery.

In 1935, Dr. Puppendahl came to the U.S. from the Netherlands with her brother, Rudolf, later a noted healthcare administrator, to escape the regime of Adolf Hitler.

Orphaned, the pair was taken in by their father’s sister, Mother Concordia of the nursing order of the Sisters of Mercy.

Dr. Puppendahl’s medical career began with a nursing degree before attending the University of Michigan Medical School.

When she began at Henry Ford Hospital in 1943, she was part of a second year rotating group, which assisted in groundbreaking surgical research under Dr. Conrad R. Lam.

Elizabeth Yagle, Ph.D. in her office at Henry Ford Hospital, c.1945. (From the Conrad R. Lam Collection, Henry Ford Health System. ID=03-006)

Elizabeth Yagle, Ph.D. in her office at Henry Ford Hospital, c.1945. (From the Conrad R. Lam Collection, Henry Ford Health System. ID=03-006)

Dr. Puppendahl co-authored several studies with Dr. Lam on burn treatments, according information provided by the Conrad R. Lam Archives.

She also was a noted researcher in early experiments on the use of tantalum mesh implants and other scientific studies.

After two years, Dr. Puppendahl left Henry Ford Hospital in 1945 for a position at the Chrysler Medical Department.

Soon after, several other female physicians on the hospital staff departed.

Dr. Louisa Piccone first joined Henry Ford Hospital as a technologist in 1938.

She pursued her medical degree at Wayne State University during the war and returned to the hospital as an Obstetrics and Gynecology resident in 1948.

During this time, female scientists also joined the ranks of Henry Ford Hospital staff.

Of note, Dr. Frank Hartman, head of the department of Pathology, hired scientist Dr. Elizabeth Yagle in 1932. Dr. Yagle, an expert serologist and immunologist, became the head of the serology laboratory and is remembered for her “collaborative spirit and willingness to participate in various research projects.”

In 1946, Dr. Edna Gordon and Dr. Edith Adams were among the first women in neuropsychiatry, and Dr. Elvina Anger became the hospital’s first female senior medical intern.

That same year, hospital Annual Report noted that, “We began the year with forty‐two young men in training”, without any mention of women on the roster.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that female physicians’ names appear on the medical staff lists.

While many of our first female physicians only spend a short time at Henry Ford Hospital, their work left a lasting mark on our history.

Learn more about Henry Ford Hospital’s 100-year history at www.HenryFord100.com.

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One thought on “Our First Female Physicians

  1. I been employeed w/HFHS for 47 years, starting on October 28, 1968 and I’m proud to be part of the organization and part of the 100th year celebration.

    I purchased the book which is great and truly a history in itself.

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