KEYWORDS: 18th century, women scientists, first female medical doctorate in Germany.
SHE THOUGHT IT
Dorothea Christiane Erxleben became famous for being the first woman to earn a doctorate degree in Germany. During the beginning of the 18th century, a lot of people in Germany got healed by medical doctors who were very little educated and tried to heal their patients with witchcraft or cures that often caused more harm than good3. This was the time when Dorothea Christiane Erxleben doctorated with a thesis that placed the highest priority on people’s safety in the treatment3. In her opinion from the three duties of a doctor – to cure quickly, pleasantly and safely – safety came first3. Too fast and pleasant treatment would often carry the risk of deterioration of the condition of the patient3. Nevertheless, Dorothea Christiane Erxleben became more famous for her critical writings about the reasons keeping females from studying. After her doctorate it took more than 100 years, until 1899, before the next female doctorate in Germany while nowadays the medical profession in Germany is actually dominated by women1.
Dorothea Christiane Erxleben was born as Dorothea Christiane Leporin on the 13th of November in 1715 in Finkenherz zu Quedlinburg. She grew up with her brother, her mother, who was the daughter of a priest, and her father, who was the medical doctor Christian Polycarp Leporin. Due to poor health, Dorothea Christiane Erxleben had to often stay in bed during her childhood and had the time to educate herself1. Therefore she was already able to read and write in the age of five1. In addition she was also interested in Latin, botanic, anatomy and the Bible from an early age and also attended private lessons together with her brother1. Since girls were not allowed to visit high school (Gymnasium), the rector of the Quedlinburg Gymnasium, Tobias Eckhard, taught her Latin in private lessons because Dorothea’s father recognised his daughter’s talent and tried to support her3. In a letter the rector wrote to the 16-year-old Dorothea about a woman that had earned a doctorate at the University of Bologna and suggested her a similar goal3.
While her brother was attending medicine school at the University in Halle, Dorothea Erxleben was working as a sort of an assistant in the doctor’s office of her father. In 1742 her father could finally manage to publish a manuscript of hers in which she wrote about the investigation of the causes that keep the female gender from studying. However, he had to write a preface himself in order to get it published1. In the same year Dorothea married with 23 years the 18 year older deacon Johann Erxleben, a widower with five small children. Her path to promotion was very difficult, her father died and left debts, so she ran his medical office alone and in addition she got four more children with Erxleben, who soon also became seriously ill3.
Moreover some of her colleagues reported her for “Kurphuscherei” (treating patients without a medical education) when one of her patients died, which caused a temporary ban of her practice as a medical doctor2. Fortunately Dorothea Erxleben was able to successfully fight for a special permit of the Prussian King Friedrich II to submit a dissertation at the Medical Faculty in Halle1. At this time, Dorothea had already dealt extensively with the works of the Medical Professors in Halle3. Her great amount of experiences from the years of activity at her father’s office, but also the intercession of the abbess from Quedlinburg allowed her to be finally admitted to the Rigorosum in front of five professors in Halle1. On the 6th of January 1754 she handed in her dissertation in Latin with the title “Quod nimis cita ac quounde curare saepius fiat causa minus tutae curationis“. She succeeded on May 6th 1754 shortly after her son Johann was born, and became a doctor of “Arzeneygelheitheit”. Her doctoral supervisor Professor Johann Juncker was very impressed of her work3. In the following years Dorothea Erxleben pursued her medical work, took care of her large family with nine children and took on tasks at the community of her husband1. She translated her work from Latin to a more extensive German version, which appeared in 1755 and was meant to be above all generally understandable3. She was only 44 years old when her 62 year old husband died. Only two years later she also died in the age of 46. Some sources say she died of unknown cause in her hometown on June 19 or 13 in 1762, while others claim she died due to breast cancer1.
SCIENTIFIC COLLABORATION AND RECOGNITION
Dorothea Christiane Erxleben’s father, the medical doctor Dr. Christian Polycarp Leporin, recognised his daughter’s talent when she was still very young and tried to support her from then on3. He himself published next to his practical work as a medical doctor various medicine articles in which he criticized the burden of the theory of medical studies and described the practical work as the more essential part for the students. Therefore he let his daughter work as a sort of an assistant in his doctor’s office while her brother was attending medicine school at the University in Halle. He then managed to publish a manuscript of hers even though he had to write a preface himself in order to get it published. It was due to her father that Dorothea Christiane Erxleben became the first female doctorate in medicine in Germany. He recognised her talent despite of her gender and therefore supported her theoretical as well as practical education from a young age.
SHE SAID IT
“He who can not wait can not heal either” (My translation)
cited by Goddemeier, Christof (26 April 2013), Dorothea Christiane Erxleben. Doktor der “Arzeneygelahrtheit”, in: Deutsches Ärzteblatt 17/110, p. 841.
THEY SAID IT
“This text has its value and deserves applause because it came from the pen of a reasonable woman’s room.” (My translation)
cited by Leipziger “Neue Zeitungen von Gelehrten Sachen” in May 1742.
„…Not Latin makes itself big now
With daughters of exalted senses,
Not by Räm, by kitchen and economy only,
No, gaining fame through wisdom:
In whose spirit one misunderstood the sex,
And sent them hats and dignity…”
cited by Johann Joachim Lange (1754), Lobgedicht auf Dorothea Erxleben.
The Dean had little later commented on this in the Wöchentlichen Hallischen Anzeigen:
“In her hands you are in good hands as a patient, dear candidate! I wish we’d always have such doctoral students so I would not have to be worried about the patients.” (My translation)
cited in: Basel, Ludwig (2012), “Dorothea Christiana Erxleben (1715-1762) Erste promovierte Ärztin in Deutschland”, Gynäkologe, 45, p. 732.
Award in her name: Dorothea Erxleben Award at the University of Halle in Germany.
Hotel Dorothea Christiane Erxleben in Quedlinburg, Germany.
Hospital in Quedlinburg named after her: Harzklinikum Dorothea Christiane Erxleben
Medical school in Quedlinburg received the name “Dorothea Christiane Erxleben” in 1960, but was closed in 1991.
Permanent Exhibition about Dorothea Christiane Erxleben at the Klopstock Museum in Quedlinburg, Germany.
Permanent Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago is an icon of feminist art which represents 1,038 women in history among other a painting of Dorothea Christiane Erxleben.
Billig, Anton Hermann (1966), Dorothea Christiana Erxleben. Die erste deutsche Ärztin. Dissertation, University. Munich. Schubert.
Böhm, Heinz (1985), Dorothea Christiane Erxleben, Ihr Leben und Wirken, Quedlinburg.
Feyl, Renate (1981), Der lautlose Aufbruch. Frauen in der Wissenschaft, Berlin.
Freundlich, Elisabeth (1981), Sie wußten, was sie wollten. Lebensbilder bedeutender Frauen aus drei Jahrhunderten. Freiburg. Herder.
Høyrup, Else (1987), Women of science, technology, and medicine; a bibliography. Roskilde. University.
Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986), Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century: a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography.
Scheffold, Andrea (1995), Dorothea Christiana Erxleben, geb. Leporin (1715 – 1762). Leben und Legende der ersten deutschen promovierten Ärztin. Dissertation, University Münster.
- Krause, W.R. (Nov. 2015), “Erste promovierte deutsche Ärztin Dorothea C. Erxleben“, Heilberufe, Volume 67, Issue 74, Springer Link.
- Basel, Ludwig (Sep. 2012), “Dorothea Christiana Erxleben (1715-1762) Erste promovierte Ärztin in Deutschland“, Gynäkologe, Volume 45, Issue 9, Springer Link, p. 732-734.
- Goddemeier, Christof (26 April 2013), ”Dorothea Christiane Erxleben. Doktor der ‘Arzneygelahrtheit’”, Deutsches Ärzteblatt, Volume 110, Issue 17, p. 841.