Dr. Ruth Finkelstein: a Pioneer in Women’s Health
A blog post from Collections Intern Clare Robbins. Clare works with senior collections manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Clare and other JMM interns, click here.
This summer I’ve had a wonderful time working with Jobi in the Collections Department at the JMM. I’ve worked on a variety of projects including processing the 2012-2013 collections, creating a condition report notebook for the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit, and even writing the catalogue numbers on surface of several objects.
Last week, I started transcribing an oral history with Dr. Ruth Finkelstein that will be used in the upcoming “Jews, Health and Healing” exhibit. Dr. Finkelstein was a Baltimorean obstetrician and gynecologist beginning in the late 1930s through the 1980s who worked for better health care and family planning for women. Listening to Dr. Finkelstein discuss her experiences has definitely been one of the highlights from my summer. While I haven’t finished the interview, I thought I would share what I have found so far.
Dr. Finkelstein grew up in New York City with her parents and four siblings. Her father decided early in her life that she would become a doctor. When she was twelve years old, Finkelstein’s father wrote to the Johns Hopkins Medical School for a catalogue that outlined how to get into medical school and she planned her life accordingly. After finishing high school, she attended Johns Hopkins for both undergraduate and medical school.
In medical school, Finkelstein worked and lived at the first birth control clinic in Baltimore, officially called the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice because, as Finkelstein recalls, “birth control was a dirty word.” Dr. Bessie Moses, a Baltimorean gynecologist, (you can read more about Dr. Moses here and here) opened this clinic on Broadway after she was denied space in the hospital. Moses used the first floor as a birth control clinic and rented the upstairs to medical students. While it was not illegal to open a privately funded birth control clinic at this time, Finkelstein recounted the difficulties that early gynecologist like herself and Dr. Moses faced. The Comstock law deemed birth control to be pornographic, thus making it illegal to import diaphragms (the only form of birth control at the time) from Europe. Margaret Sanger, an early birth control activist and nurse, smuggled the diaphragms into the United States and distributed them to Moses. Further, the only way a woman could go to the clinic was if she was referred by her physicians. Women, however, were only referred if they had a heart, lung, or kidney disease.
Finkelstein also discussed the difficulties female doctors experienced in the early twentieth century. Not only was Finkelstein the only Jewish woman at Johns Hopkins Medical School, she was also the only woman from her undergraduate class to pursue medicine. As a doctor, she found that her opinion was not respected by her male colleagues. The male doctors, she described, were “belittling” and overall dismissive of her opinions and diagnoses. Because of these attitudes, Finkelstein could only work with a small group of physicians.
Despite the many hardships Finkelstein faced, she worked in the largely male-dominated medical field as an obstetrician and gynecologist in order to help women. The best way that I can conclude this post is with a short quotations from Dr. Ruth Finkelstein describing her basic philosophy. “I’m a champion of the underdog. I’m a softy. My philosophy is to help people, I guess.”