Bertha Van Hoosen was born in 1863 and spent her early life on her family farm in Stoney Creek, MI. In order to attend an accredited high school, Bertha had to be driven by her father to Pontiac by horse drawn wagon every Monday morning and brought back to her home at the farm every Friday night. However, Bertha’s academic dedication never faded. In 1880, she entered University of Michigan after graduating from her high school in Pontiac. She graduated from University of Michigan in 1884 with a bachelor’s degree and went on to the medical school, from which she graduated in 1888. She then completed a residency with the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the very same hospital which notable alumnae Eliza Mosher and Amanda Sanford had gotten their starts in the medical field. Upon completion, she took her talents to Chicago, IL to set up a medical practice, which she maintained for 60 years. Meanwhile, she became Professor of Clinical Gynecology at University of Illinois Medical School. In 1913, she was appointed as the head of the gynecological staff at Cook County Hospital. She held that title until 1918, when she was named the Dean of Obstetrics at Loyola University. With this accomplishment she became the first ever woman to head a medical division at a coeducational university.
Van Hoosen’s focus and dedication to the advancements of women’s health stayed with her throughout her entire life. She took many strides for women throughout her medical career. For example, she was the only woman at the time to be a member of the International College of Surgeons. She was also the first and only woman to read a paper at the International Congress of Medicine in Budapest, Hungary in 1909, which helped popularize the use of scopolamine morphine in obstetrics and surgery. This practice helped mothers undergo less pain during childbirth, “rendering them unconscious without inhibiting their reflexes.” Her experiences as a successful surgeon and women’s health advocate influenced her to found and become the first president of the American Medical Women’s Association, which later became relevant on an international scale. An outspoken feminist, Van Hoosen was vocal in her outrage of the discriminatory treatment of women in the field of medicine. She expressed these opinions through essays and, eventually, a book. Her autobiography, Petticoat Surgeon, published in 1947, addresses her journey as a woman of many firsts. This book also gives an interesting, in depth account of her time at the University of Michigan. For example, she says that she knew of only two other women who were studying medicine, both of whom came from elite and refined backgrounds. She adds a humorous quip at her reasoning for joining the medical field, saying that she was often tempted to say, “It was the peacock hat and ermine coat first attracted me to the medical profession.” Although she joked that the promise of a lavish life helped had made her decision to join the medical field an easy one, she truly cared about her work and hoped that women in the medical field would become a normality.
Today, Bertha Van Hoosen’s name lives on at Bursley Hall, where Van Hoosen House was dedicated in her honor. Her name will likely continue to set an example to young women to follow their passions in medicine and that, soon enough, there will be no more need for firsts.
- Clipping from Pontiac Daily Press, October 5, 1950, Box 1, Bertha Van Hoosen Papers.
- Clipping from Rochester Clarion, June 27, 1963, ibid.
- Bertha Van Hoosen, Petticoat Surgeon (Chicago : Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1947) , p. 52.
Cover of The Ladies’ Review, November 1916, featuring portrait of Bertha Van Hoosen, Bertha Van Hoosen papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.