Text: Elena Martinez/IHM

Women have moved the medical sciences forward

RESEARCH In this “Humanities Lab”, In Vivo introduces you to a research project from the Institute of Humanities in Medicine (IHM), Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), and the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne (UNIL).

Research on the relationship between science and gender now stands as an academic discipline in its own right, highlighting the scientific achievements of women, the obstacles they have encountered, and the strategies they have implemented to get their work recognised by their peers.

Aude Fauvel is participating in this movement, by taking an original viewpoint. “What are women doing to science? What quality innovations do women researchers bring to research and knowledge?” she asks.

Obstacles that women have encountered include the Matilda effect: the bias of attributing a scientific discovery in theory to a man instead of a woman, while denying and devaluing women’s contributions. This effect is named after the 19th century American feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who noted that men would tend to attribute women’s intellectual thoughts to themselves. Many overlooked women of science who were victims of this have since been resurrected: Lise Meitner (physicist, discovered nuclear fission), Rosalind Franklin (biochemist, who discovered the structure of DNA), Marietta Blau (physicist, invented radiography techniques).

“In Switzerland,” Aude Fauvel says, “little is known about how women have contributed to medicine and science, even though Switzerland was the first country to open its universities to women. In 1900, more women (mostly foreign) than men were enrolled across all medical faculties in the country. What did they do next? History does not give us much to answer that question.”

However, the first female doctors wanted to demonstrate that a female perspective was vital to the development of the medical discipline. Their influence in the fields of gynaecology-obstetrics and paediatrics was crucial. Women moved into other fields in which medicine, prior to that dominated mainly by men, had not yet developed: understanding female sexuality and pleasure, public health, health literacy and prevention, etc.

To take just one example, Swiss-trained Anna Fischer-Dückelmann wrote a pioneering book in 1901, Die Frau als Hausärztin, which covered a multitude of public health and family medicine topics. Her work was reprinted until 1993, translated into a dozen languages, and sold tens of millions of copies. She had a key impact on the health of European women, yet her name appears in no medical history books.



Aude Fauvel

Historian of medicine and senior lecturer at the IHM.

For more information: Quand la Suisse était “féministe”: une petite histoire de la féminisation de la médecine à la Belle Époque (When Switzerland was “feminist”, a short history of women in medicine during La Belle Époque), by Aude Fauvel, Lucie Begert, Izel Demirbas, Revue Médicale Suisse, No. 7442, June 2021.