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 a special cell, the (Reed–Sternberg cell) which bears her name.[1] Dorothy was one of the first women to graduate from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She was also one of the first professionally trained female physicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Early life[edit]

Dorothy Mabel Reed was born on September 22, 1874 in Columbus, Ohio, the third child to parents Grace Kimball and William Pratt Reed. A child of 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]


Mendenhall's early education consisted of tutoring by her grandmother at home, drawing classes at the Columbus Art School, and, in the late 1880s, private teaching by her governess Anna Gunning, in Columbus and, later, in Berlin. Her first formal education began in 1891 when she entered Smith College, where she earned her B.L. in 1895.[3]

There, Mendenhall discovered her passion for medicine in a biology class during her sophomore year. After discovering that Johns Hopkins School of Medicine had begun to accept women, Dorothy took the required science courses at MIT[4] and later applied to the school.[5]

Dorothy graduated fourth in her class in 1900 and was awarded a prestigious internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, serving under William Osler. Originally, Dr. Osler told Dorothy the internship was "not a place for women," although he later said he did not want to be seen as hostile to women entering the medical school.[5] Being accepted as a professional peer was a continual challenge to Reed in the male-dominated field of medicine at that time. Both professors and other students told her they thought that a medical education was "wasted" on a woman, since they thought she would eventually get married, have children, and never practice medicine.[citation needed]


Upon graduation, Reed was offered an internship in an insane asylum, which she declined in order to study pathology instead. She became a pathology fellow under the direction of William Welch. Again, she faced a lack of advancement opportunities. Dorothy and her colleagues were more interested in working in medicine than in spearheading a feminist movement, [6] and her diary reflected this, with some entries discussing how some female students were overly sensitive, for which she had little tolerance. Dorothy and her classmates Margaret Long and Florence Sabin were viewed as a different kind of female physician—ones who were not especially concerned with the feminist movement, but who rather cared most passionately about their work in medicine.[citation needed]

The next year she became a Pathology fellow there under the direction of Dr. William Welch.[3] As she continued her work in pathology, Reed taught bacteriology, assisted with autopsies, and undertook research on Hodgkin's disease.[7]

In 1901, when she was only 28, Reed made her most recognized contribution to medical science: the discovery of the Reed-Sternberg cell, which she identified as a diagnostic marker for Hodgkin's lymphoma. She compared tissue samples from tuberculosis and Hodgkin's patients, observing in Hodgkins patients a large distinctive cell not seen in tuberculosis patients. This cell would initially be named the Dorothy Reed cell, before later being named the Reed-Sternberg cell. Reed effectively disproved the then-common belief that Hodgkin's lymphoma was a subtype of tuberculosis. She published her findings in 1902.[3]

Since she found a lack of advancement opportunities in pathology, Reed accepted the first internship in pediatrics at the Babies Hospital in New York City, part of the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. In January of 1903 she became the first resident physician there.[3] She worked under the direction or L. E. Holt, a pioneer of pediatrics and the author of The Care and Feeding of Children. Holt was less than respectful of female physicians.[citation needed]

Mendenhall began the second phase of her career in 1914 when she became a lecturer in the Department of Home Economics at the University of Wisconsin. Motivated by the circumstances of Margaret's birth and death and John's precarious nutritional status during infancy, Mendenhall devoted herself to the issues of maternal and infant health, particularly reducing infant mortality rates by providing prenatal care, and educating others about the importance of infant and early childhood nutrition. In addition to teaching, she also organized the first infant welfare clinic in the state in Madison in 1915. Her successes in this line of work--perhaps best exemplified by Madison's status as the U.S. city with the lowest infant mortality rate--ultimately lead her to other appointments including those in the extension schools of the University of Chicago and Utah State Agricultural College.[3]

During WWI, when Charles Mendenhall went to work for the U.S. government in Washington D.C., Dorothy Mendenhall was recruited by the U.S. Children's Bureau. In her capacity as a medical officer with the Children's Bureau during the years from 1917 to 1936 she did comprehensive studies of war orphanages in Belgium and France, and nutritional studies of children in England. She also worked on a nationwide drive to weigh and measure all children under six in order to call attention to the prevalence of malnutrition and develop norms for height and weight from birth through age six. Mendenhall wrote numerous influential publications on children's health care and nutrition and, in 1926, she visited Denmark to compare the infant and maternal mortality rates there with those in the U.S. During that visit she observed the successes of the Danish midwifery movement and became a proponent of childbirth without unnecessary medical interventions. This very successful second career renewed Mendenhall's sense of herself as a valuable successful professional woman. By the late 1910s the combination of motherhood and fulfilling work gave her a sense of purpose which made her marriage more satisfying as well.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Mendenhall first met Charles Elwood Mendenhall, son of the well-known scientist Thomas Mendenhall and Susan Allen Mendenhall, in her youth when both lived in Columbus. The two maintained a friendship over the years and, when both were students at Johns Hopkins in the late 1890s, they frequently spent time hiking together in the Baltimore countryside. Charles carried a torch for Dorothy and proposed to her numerous times over the years. Finally, in 1904, after another suitor came to New York to try to win her back, Dorothy decided to escape her difficult personal and professional situation by marrying Charles and creating a "normal home and family life" with him. After a tentative engagement Dorothy married Charles on Valentine's Day 1906 in her mother's old family home in Talcottville, New York. The two had an extended honeymoon in Europe and then returned to Madison, Wisconsin, where Charles taught physics at the University of Wisconsin. [3]

Dorothy and Charles Mendenhall had four children. The first, Margaret, a daughter, died one day after birth; the second, Richard,[3] a son, died at age one in an accident. Her third child, John "Blackjack" Mendenhall, became a renowned physician and faculty member at University of Wisconsin Medical School. He initially followed his mother's footsteps, taking a residency in pathology. Following his service in World War II, however, he became a thoracic surgeon. Reed's youngest son, Thomas C. Mendenhall, became a professor of history at Yale University, and served as the sixth president of Smith College, her alma mater.


Reed published two books, including Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children[8] and What is Happening to Mothers and Babies in the District of Columbia?[9] Both titles were accredited[clarification needed] by the Department of Labor.[citation needed]

In Milk: the Indispensable Food for Children, Reed asserts that dairy milk is essential for a child to develop appropriate height, weight, and bone formation. The book states that milk is high in protein, vitamins and minerals, and that it is an inexpensive, high-quality source of protein.[citation needed]

What is Happening to Mothers and Babies in the District of Columbia? was written in response to a spike in infant mortality in 1925 in the District of Columbia. Reed conducted a study over three years, finding that life expectancy was slightly higher for white babies than African-American babies, and posited that babies in urban areas had higher mortality rates.[citation needed]


By the early 1960s her health began to fail and she was hospitalized repeatedly, though she continued to live independently through 1963.[3]

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall died of arteriosclerotic heart disease in Chester, Connecticut on July 31, 1964 at the age of eighty-nine.[3]


  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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Collection: Dorothy Reed Mendenhall papers | Smith College Finding Aids". Retrieved 2020-08-06. This article incorporates text available under the CC BY 3.0 license.
  4. ^ Ker Conway, Jil (8 June 2011). Written by Herself: Volume I: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology. ISBN 9780307797322.
  5. ^ a b 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. ^ "The Women of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine". The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
  8. ^ Mendenhall, Dorothy Mabel (Reed). Milk: The Indispensable Food for Children. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Children’s Bureau, 1926. Print.
  9. ^ 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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