The Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia began its career on a June afternoon in 1868 in the office of a remarkable Quaker physician by the name of Albert Holmes Smith when 9 men met to create the Society.
Dr. Smith was young, and he had been trained by Dr. Joseph Warrington to deliver the poor as well as middle class Philadelphia matrons in their homes thru the Philadelphia Lying-In Charity created in 1828. Those trained by Warrington created an obstetrical society around him in the 1840’s but it disappeared with his death, leaving a large professional void.
Originally, the membership of the Obstetrical Society of Philadelphia, when it met in the Halls of the College of Physicians at 9:00 p.m. once a month, was composed of men interested in the diseases and problems peculiar to women. Women physicians were not allowed to be members.
The 9:00 p.m. black tie affairs featuring case presentations, coroner’s autopsy specimens and arguments and discussion — all of which was stenographically recorded, edited and published, were memorable events. They gradually gave way to special symposia, tri-city conferences and special OR clinics (which were attended by members wearing ordinary street clothes). Today the Obstetrical Society is the educating arm of both “town and gown” — for those who are board certified obstetricians and gynecologists, those who are in training and those who confine their work to diseases peculiar to women, but don’t wish to be involved with surgery or midwifery.
The first president, Francis Gurney Smith, was a medical generalist who founded the first physiology lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine. The most academically prominent of the original founders of the Society was William Goodell — the first clinical professor of gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical School. A failure in the general practice of medicine in the small town of West Chester, Pennsylvania, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, Goodell was brought into “Philly” to start up the Preston Retreat, an endowed maternity facility for poor white married women, in 1866. With astute management (including paying the infected women to go to Philadelphia General Hospital for delivery), the Preston eventually ranked #1 in the world for safety at delivery. It was renowned for the absence of childbed or puerperal fever as a result of Goodell’s procedures and practices, involving extreme cleanliness.
In 1876 the children, especially the newborns, died “like flies” in the summertime. Goodell felt that the Obstetrical Society should create a pamphlet showing the mothers how to keep their babies clean by using clean diapers and bathing them and dressing them in clean clothes. Indeed, Goodell personally paid for the pamphlets for the Society in the beginning. For some 20 years or more, these early pamphlets on child care were a great success, eventually being taken over by the city health department as public health became a dominate institutionalized force in Philadelphia.
As astute and beloved by medical students as William Goodell was, he would not tolerate women as physicians whereas Albert Holmes Smith was their champion. The pioneer medical work of the women professors in what is now MCP was read before the Society and then pushed to publication by Albert Holmes Smith; and, of course, long after he died women physicians were finally admitted to the Society membership. Indeed, four have become president Catherine McFarland, Mary Dewitt Pettit, Elsie Carrington and Dorothy Barbo. Goodell felt that the presence of women at the Society’s meetings would stifle discussion. Smith felt that the men present were friends of women. Marie K. Formad was the first woman member. She was the daughter of the coroner, Henry Formad, who participated each month.
Pulling the 19th century practices and beliefs into the 20th century was not easy. There were many famous arguments especially with town physician Joseph Price who literally modernized abdominal surgery at his private hospital (now gone) in order to create modern GYN surgery.
There are approximately 400 members with 40% women physicians at this time. Three states are represented: Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The membership encompasses 4 medical schools as well as one school of osteopathic medicine. Membership is not restricted to a favored few. It is open to all physicians restricting their work to the care of women’s unique problems.