Dorothy Reed Mendenhall

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Dorothy Mabel Reed Mendenhall
Dorothy Mabel Reed Mendenhall.jpg
Dorothy Reed Mendenhall
Born(1874-09-22)September 22, 1874
DiedJuly 31, 1964(1964-07-31) (aged 89)
Alma materSmith College
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine

Dorothy Mabel Reed Mendenhall (September 22, 1874–July 31, 1964) was a prominent pediatric physician specializing in cellular pathology. In 1901 she discovered that Hodgkin's disease was not a form of tuberculosis, by noticing the presence of the cell (Reed-Sternberg cell) characteristic of the disease.[1] Dorothy was one of the first females to graduate from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, after which she stayed for an internship year in pathology. She was one of the first professionally trained female physicians of the late 19th and early 20th century.


Early life[edit]

Dorothy Mabel Reed was born on September 22, 1874 in Columbus, Ohio as the third child to parents Grace Kimball and William Pratt Reed. With parents of prominence and privilege, Dorothy lived on a large estate with her parents, brother, sister, aunts, uncles, and several cousins. In 1880, William Reed died of diabetes and tuberculosis, leaving the family with a large sum of money[2] While living on the estate, Dorothy was educated by her grandmother followed by a governess.


Formal education began at Smith College in 1895[3] where Dorothy discovered her passion of medicine in a biology class sophomore year. After discovering that Johns Hopkins School of Medicine had begun to accept women Dorothy took required science courses at MIT [4] then applied to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.[5] Upon the acceptance of women into Johns Hopkins School of Medicine four women were determined for their sex to be accepted at the same standard as men. Having raised money for the Women's Fund Committee the school opened for males and females.[6]

Dorothy graduated fourth in her class in 1900, and was awarded a prestigious internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, serving under Dr. William Osler. Originally Dr. Osler did not want Dorothy attending the school and told her it was not a place for women. Though this comment could show that Dr. Osler did not want women in his school he said later he did not want to be seen as hostile to women entering the medical school.[7] Being accepted as a woman was a continual challenge in the male dominated field of medicine at that time. Both professors and other students expressed to her that medical education was wasted on a woman since she would just get married and have children and never practice medicine.

Work in the field[edit]

Upon graduating she was offered an internship in an insane asylum, typical for women physicians, that she declined to study pathology. She became a pathology fellow under the direction of Dr. William Welch but faced difficulties from lack of advancement opportunities. Dorothy and her colleagues were more interested in their physician work than a feminist movement.[8] Her diary consisted of few entries discussing how some female students were oversensitive, of which she had low tolerance. Since many of her views were not feministic, Dorothy and her classmates, Margaret Long and Florence Sabin, were viewed as a different kind of female physician that cared most passionately about their work in medicine. Though not feminists, hardships still arose simply from the fact of being a woman. While researching pathology Mendenhall taught bacteriology, assisted with autopsies and undertook research on Hodgkin's disease.[9] Her friend Margaret Long was studying tuberculosis at the time of Dorothy's Hodgkin's research. She made her most recognized contribution to medical science when she discovered the cell that is diagnostic of Hodgkin's lymphoma and effectively disproved the common belief that the disease was a subtype of tuberculosis.

When only 28 years old, Mendenhall discovered the cell for Hodgkin's disease and the evolution of the cells. Previously Hodgkin's disease was considered a form of tuberculosis but her contribution (1901) established that it was a form of cancer, not infection. She tested the concept on rabbits by showing that Hodgkin's disease was not transmissible unlike tuberculosis. Dorothy used microscopic specimens to compare tissue samples from TB and Hodgkin's patients. It was then that she observed the large giant cells (The Dorothy Reed Cell later termed the Reed–Sternberg Cell). Since the giant cells were distinct in the characteristics it possessed, Hodgkin's disease had a clear diagnostic marker. Having a way to clearly identify the condition allowed the development of effective treatment. Five-year survival of Hodgkin's is about 80% vs about 40% for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mendenhall's findings, published in 1902, presented the Reed cell (also called the Sternberg–Reed and Reed–Sternberg cell). However, MacCallum's mention in his textbook on pathology established that it had become consensus opinion.

Mendenhall enjoyed her work in pathology but began looking into pediatrics since there were not advancement opportunities in her current field. She then accepted the first internship in pediatrics at the Babies Hospital in New York City (now the Babies & Children's Hospital – part of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center). She worked under the direction or L. E. Holt, MD. He was a pioneer of pediatrics, author of the first major textbook on the subject and author of The care and feeding of children. Upon her arrival there were no physicians present, and Holt was less than respectful of female physicians.

Family life[edit]

She left New York to marry Charles Mendenhall, who was moving to Madison, Wisconsin, to accept a position in physics at UW in 1906. Charles later became chairman of that department. The two met each other when Dorothy was a medical student at Johns Hopkins. After marriage and having children, she again became active in medicine by initiating public health education, disseminating important pediatric findings about children's health.

Together Dorothy and Charles Mendenhall had four children—the first (a daughter) died one day after birth; the second (a son) died at age one in an accident. Her third child, John "Blackjack" Mendenhall, became a renowned physician and faculty member at UW Medical school. He had first done a residency in pathology, as had his mother, but, following service in World War II, became a thoracic surgeon after he acquired tuberculosis himself. The youngest son of Dorothy Mendenhall, Thomas C. Mendenhall, was a professor of history at Yale University, and served as the sixth president of Smith College.


Mendenhall published two books, including Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children[10] and What is Happening to Mothers and Babies in the District of Columbia?[11] Both titles were accredited by the US Department of Labor.

Milk: the Indispensable Food for Children addresses that milk is an essential aspect for child development in regards to height, weight, and bone formation. It is high in protein, vitamins and minerals to aid in development. Though a very strong source of calcium, it is possible to receive the same amounts from vegetables. Mendenhall said that milk is such a desired product from being of high degree and cheap cost.

What is Happening to Mothers and Babies in the District of Columbia? In 1925 the infant mortality rate increased heavily in the District of Columbia. Dorothy Mendenhall produced a study over a three-year time span to see why this trend may be. The difference in life expectancy was slightly higher for white babies than African American babies. It is thought that babies in severe urban areas have higher mortality rates than those that do not live in urban areas. However, safeguarding is the most effective way to lessen infant mortality. Dorothy herself lost a son, hours after birth, making this study one that she could relate to personally.


Mendenhall died of heart disease on July 31, 1964, at the age of 89.


  1. ^ "Celebrating America's Women Physician: Changing the Face of Medicine". National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
  2. ^ Weigand, Kate. “Dorothy Reed Mendenhall Papers.” Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections. Sophia Smith Collection, 2001.
  3. ^ "Dorothy Reed Mendenhall papers". Smith College Archives.
  4. ^ Ker Conway, Jil. "Written by Herself: Volume I: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology".
  5. ^ Zwitter, Matjaz, Joel Cohen, Ann Barrett, and Elizabeth B. Robinton. "Dorothy Reed and Hodgkin’s Disease: A Reflection After a Century." International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics 53.2 (2002): 366-75.
  6. ^ Shrager, Joseph B. “Three Women at Johns Hopkins: Private Perspectives on Medical Coeducation in the 1890s.” Annals of Internal Medicine. 115.7 (1991): 564-69.
  7. ^ Zwitter, Matjaz, Joel Cohen, Ann Barrett, and Elizabeth B. Robinton. "Dorothy Reed and Hodgkin’s Disease: A Reflection After a Century." International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics 53.2 (2002): 366-75
  8. ^ Shrager, Joseph B. "Three Women at Johns Hopkins: Private Perspectives on Medical Coeducation in the 1890s". Annals of Internal Medicine. 115.7 (1991): 564-69.
  9. ^ "The Women of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine". The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
  10. ^ Mendenhall, Dorothy Mabel (Reed). Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Children’s Bureau, 1926. Print.
  11. ^ Mendenhall, Dorothy Reed. What is Happening to Mothers and Babies in the District of Columbia? Washington: U.S. Dept. of Labor, 1928. Print.

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