Volume 17 Number 3 FALL 2000

On the Cover

Admitting Women to Medical School for More than a Century. 

Cover illustration by Janet Woolley.

Stanford Medicine, published quarterly by Stanford University Medical Center, aims to keep readers informed about the education, research, clinical care and other goings on at the Medical Center.



For the special section for Alumni, click on the link below:



Centenarian Madge Peirsol, MD, dared to be a doctor in the days when female physicians were rarities.



MADGE PEIRSOL, MD, IS NOT ONE TO SHY AWAY FROM ADVENTURE. A GRADUATE OF STANFORD'S MEDICAL SCHOOL CLASS OF 1929, SHE BROKE THE CONVENTIONS OF THAT TIME, OPERATING A WOMEN-OWNED MEDICAL PRACTICE WITH A FEMALE CLASSMATE. A look at Peirsol's early experiences in medicine provides a glimpse of the adventurous spirit required of pioneering women physicians.

Peirsol, now 100, was born in Oakland in 1899. She grew up in Mendocino, where her father practiced medicine. In 1917 she entered Pomona College and graduated as a physical education teacher -- but after a brief teaching stint she decided her calling lay elsewhere. Encouraged by her father to go into medicine, Peirsol took pre-med courses at UC Berkeley, and then attended Stanford's medical school in San Francisco, where she was one of seven women in the class.

What was it like to be a female medical student during that era? In a 1995 interview with Shirley Howard, MD, for the Fresno Medical Society, Peirsol noted a few particulars. For one thing, medical school administrators frowned on marriage for female physicians. "When we entered medical school it was assumed that we would not marry, have children, and defect [from the medical profession] -- as we had taken the place of a male in this prestigious school," she said. Another hurdle involved instructors' unfair treatment of female students -- though this problem was short-lived, notes Peirsol's longtime friend Dwight Barnes, who has documented her life experiences and provided these writings as background for this article.

Peirsol interned for a year at the Hospital for Women and Children in San Francisco and completed her residency at Los Angeles County Hospital. She told Barnes: "I had to get my brother to teach me to drive, so I could deliver babies in West L.A." There she developed a fearless habit of going on house calls anywhere, day or night. This custom gave her insights into patients' social and family environments -- insights that she believed crucial to her success as a healer.

In 1936, after practicing medicine with her father in Claremont for several years, Peirsol opened a general practice in Fresno with pediatrician Margaret Eakin, MD, a former Stanford classmate. Their office included a waiting room, an examination room, and a "talking" room. Instead of having their nurse do preliminaries, such as taking vital signs, Peirsol insisted on doing this herself, to help her establish stronger connections with patients.

The people of Fresno were unaccustomed to female physicians, and as a result fees from paying patients were sparse at first. But Peirsol and Eakin found no shortage of charity work. Like much of the country during the late 1930s, Fresno was staggering under the Great Depression. Fresno and the rest of Central California became home to many migrants fleeing the Dustbowl -- more than a few of whom became Peirsol's patients.

Medical practice proved to be eye-opening and action-packed. On one occasion, Peirsol began to make a case for birth control to a migrant mother of five who had come to her office -- only to stop when she realized that the woman was ignorant of where babies came from. On another occasion, Peirsol was called to attend to a woman in labor during a major flood. The father-to-be had to row Peirsol in a boat to the house, where she delivered the baby successfully. Such heroic acts throughout her career inspired some 16 mothers to name daughters after her.

Another way Peirsol and Eakin gained the community's admiration was through their involvement in the local Girl Scouts. On mountain outings they introduced countless groups of girls to the joys of the natural world. In the 1940s the doctors started taking off a month each year for wilderness trips to the high Sierra, often bringing along their teen-age nieces.

Peirsol retired from private practice in 1962, but worked for another decade at the Fresno State Health Service. She then moved to Oakhurst, Calif., in the Sierra foothills, where she stays fit and active with gardening and walking. She made her most recent wilderness pack trip at the tender age of 95. SM

Related story:
Women's Admissions


note on sources:

THE STORIES AND PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF FEMALE STUDENTS AT STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE WERE GLEANED FROM A VARIETY OF PRIMARY DOCUMENTS FOUND IN THE LANE MEDICAL LIBRARY ARCHIVES. In particular, information was culled from the memoirs of former Stanford women medical students, preserved dissertations and photographs, and articles found in Stanford MD. The papers of the Dora B. Goldstein Collection deserve special mention, as much of the history of women at Stanford University School of Medicine in the 1960s and 1970s would be lost today were it not for the foresight of Dr. Goldstein.

works consulted

* Conley, Frances K.,
"REPORT CARD FROM STUDENTS," Stanford MD, Winter 1975,

14(1): 19-20.

* DORA B. GOLDSTEIN PAPERS, Folders 1.1-1.10, Lane
Library Archives.

* Duff, Jane, "STANFORD'S YOUNG WOMEN IN MEDICINE," Stanford MD, Winter

1968, 7(1): 10-5.

* Fowler, Lydia F.,"SUGGESTIONS TO FEMALE MEDICAL STUDENTS," Journal of Medical Reform, May 1854, 1: 127-130.


Stanford MD, Winter 1975, 14(1): 21-26.

* "RECOLLECTIONS OF COOPER MEDICAL COLLEGE (1883-1905)," Stanford Medical School,

Stanford, Calif., May 1964.

* Still, Claire, "A WOMAN'S LIB CENTENNIAL," Stanford MD, Spring 1976, 15(2):


* Thille, Grace S. Yesterday. Santa Paula, California, 1958.

McGill Medical Journal, April 1947, 16(2): 235-245.