The Professionalism of Sarah Dolley, M.D.
I have often, while trying to develop my intellectual faculties, forgot-
ten, that to cultivate the moral faculties, was equally necessary, and by
this neglect, have lost much. I do think that perfection, will never be
personified, without physical, intellectual and moral cultivation; and
when the intellectual is cultivated at the expense of the physical or
moral, diere is a loss of that symmetry which was designed by nature.
Sarah Adamson (Dolley), February 3, 1850
THREE MONTHS after beginning medical school in Syracuse, New York, twenty-year-old Sarah Read Adamson wrote these lines to her cousin Elijah back home in Philadelphia.1 In 1851 she became the third woman in the United States to graduate from a chartered college of medicine. Adamson’s ideal of professionalism—the art of good judgment expressed as a balance of professional and moral values—animated the practices of most American physicians of the time. But in the long run, this professional (rather than scientific) ideal proved especially characteristic of women physicians, linking Sarah Dolley’s pioneer generation and its successors. As she wrote her son after nearly half a century in practice, “In all departures of health of body, mind, or spirit, I believe there is a loss of balance.”2 Dolley’s call for balance was both a literal reference to physiological systems and a metaphor for personal integration. Seeking balance for herself as a physician, a wife, a mother, and an active citizen of her community, Dolley forged a career that, from a late twentieth-century perspective, characterized the careers and life choices adopted by many of her successors. Increasingly, diis model has become an ideal for men as well as women.3
Long before her death in 1909 at the age of eighty, Dolley was acknowledged as one of the “eminent ones,” laden with honors and the