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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 457-460
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Conduct Unbecoming a Woman:
Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn
Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn. By Regina Morantz-Sanchez. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 292. $30.00 (hardcover); $15.95 (paper).
In Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn, Regina Morantz-Sanchez recounts the extraordinary story of Dr. Mary Amanda Dixon Jones, a gynecologic surgeon of national and international reputation who was the subject of a series of newspaper articles in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1889. The articles detailed a history of an "ambitious and unscrupulous social climber, a scalpel-eager surgeon" who forced unnecessary operations on unsuspecting, vulnerable women. The articles also accused Jones of financial improprieties and of using the reports of her surgical procedures and early descriptions of surgical pathology "to enhance her reputation" in the medical and scientific community. The lurid newspaper stories led to indictments against Jones for manslaughter and malpractice. She eventually was cleared of charges, and three years later brought a libel suit against the newspaper.
The story of these events unfolds in a biography of a woman physician who was quite extraordinary for her time. This book is also important as a social history of Brooklyn—a then-new middle-class suburb of New York City—and as a history of medical practice in turn-of-the-century New York. Conduct [End Page 457] Unbecoming a Woman provides an interesting perspective on women's health as experienced by the women themselves, as well as from the viewpoint of the predominately male medical practitioners. Above all, this book adds to the author's previous body of work. Morantz-Sanchez's highly regarded 1985 work Sympathy and Science was reprinted with a new preface by the author in 2000, and together these books constitute a very comprehensive resource for the serious study of the history of women in the medical profession in the United States.
Conduct Unbecoming a Woman consists of nine chapters plus 60 pages of annotations and bibliography. The first chapter opens with the story of a 26-year-old woman who checked herself into Dr. Dixon's "Women's Hospital of Brooklyn," reportedly for removal of a tumor, as chronicled in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The surgery goes badly, there are complications, and the patient eventually dies. In the newspaper account, the patient is portrayed as an innocent victim "in the prime of life" whose unhappy fate was sealed by Jones, "a sadistic, knife happy surgeon." The author presents evidence later in the chapter that this patient was a chronically ill young woman whose symptoms may have been related to venereal disease acquired from her husband, and that she was a decisive, intelligent young woman who was "able to recognize her plight" and who sought help from a network of supportive laywomen who eventually referred her to Dr. Jones. The facts of the case are interesting in themselves, but also for what they tell us about the place of women in 19th-century middle-class society in the United States. There are inklings in this story of an emerging though still miniscule trend for women to take charge of their own health care (if not their own fate). This chapter recounts the tales of a number of Dr. Jones's other surgical patients who do not have successful outcomes. It also includes her responses to the newspaper articles, selected excerpts from letters of rebuttal from satisfied patients, and highlights from a series of articles which appeared in a smaller, rival newspaper, The Citizen, which spoke out in her defense.
The next two chapters give a detailed social history of Brooklyn and Dr. Jones's life and work. Mary Dixon Jones graduated from the Wesleyan Women's college at age 17. She taught at a girl's seminary, and at age 26 married a lawyer, had two children, and followed her husband...