Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

My Mother, the Doctor-A Memoir

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

My Mother, the Doctor-A Memoir

Article excerpt

My mother, Cheri Appel, M.D. (as she proudly signed her name), was born on September 15, 1901. When she was thirty-eight she gave birth to me, three years after having had her first child, my brother. That event occurred thirteen years after she "married" my father. They remained together for fifty years.

Like many bright Jewish girls of her time, my mother attended the only public institution of higher learning in New York City for young women, Hunter College, which was then tuition free. But Hunter still required the family to provide food, lodging, clothing, books, and transportation for its studious daughter. Unlike my father, who had attended the equivalent institution for boys, CCNY (City College of New York), while working Saturdays as a shoe salesman, my mother never mentioned having to work while attending Morris High School, in the Bronx, or Hunter College, although she was the eldest of five children.

My maternal grandmother, who was my surrogate mother for much of my childhood, had come to the United States alone, at the age of sixteen, from Yekaterinoslav, in the Ukraine. She had taught herself to read and write Russian, Yiddish, and some Ukrainian-- because schooling was for her four brothers, not for girls. When I was a teenager she'd ask me to correct her occasional letters in English, the fourth language she had picked up--this one pronounced with a heavy Russian-Jewish accent. She'd married her 3rd cousin, Joe Appel, kept a kosher home for as long as her mother-in-law was alive, then ate ham and bacon with pleasure-- except on Yom Kippur. She was a strong woman with a sense of humor--both of which characteristics she passed on to my mother. But my grandmother had had TB, a broken back, who knows how many abortions, and, finally, long standing heart disease. So it fell to my mother, originally named Sarah, then Sari, and eventually, for most of her life, Cheri, to mother her younger two brothers and two sisters.

Cheri must have been around eleven or twelve, living in Brooklyn, when one day she went roller skating with her youngest sibling, my aunt Mickey, on her shoulders. My mother fell and broke her front tooth, which went through her lip. She was taken to the neighborhood doctor, who stitched up the wound. The doctor was a woman, and that experience, according to my mother, was what set her on her way to becoming a doctor.

Medical school at NYU was a trial by fire for the five women, studying alongside one hundred men, at the time my mother was enrolled there. The Class of 1927 of Bellevue Medical School was taught by professors who thought they were wasting their time teaching young women who would never practice and were taking places that might have been held by men. As it turned out, all five of the women graduated from medical school, married, had children, and practiced medicine. Not true of all of their male classmates.

The "superiority" of the men, proclaimed by their professors, was enacted in multiple ways by these classmates. The first time a group of students, including my mother, witnessed surgery, the tallest man among them suddenly fainted away as the first incision was made. And once, in anatomy lab, when my mother began to remove the bandages covering the cranium of the cadaver she shared with another female student, she heard whispering from some men standing near them. Out of the skull hopped several white mice, placed in there by the men, in the expectation of seeing screaming women jump up on lab chairs. No such pandemonium occurred. My mother was unconcerned about the mice. Her lab partner had spent the previous summer working with laboratory mice at the hospital. Another male supremacist myth exploded.

Whether it was the influence of my father, Dr. Benjamin Segal, already heading towards a pioneering career in ob-gyn, or my mother's own feminist proclivities that determined her professional direction, I do not know. I did repeatedly hear the story about the director of the ob-gyn service of Morrisania Hospital, in the Bronx, where my mother was doing her residency in gynecology. …

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