The first women elected to College Fellowship

Editor’s note: This column is based on the theme of the Surgical History Group Panel Session at Clinical Congress 2019 in San Francisco, CA. Women Pioneers in Surgery will take place 9:45−11:15 am, Monday, October 28.

In 1913, the newly created American College of Surgeons (ACS) welcomed 1,057 Fellows from more than 2,000 applicants. Fellowship criteria did not specify gender (see Figure 1). We identified five women in this inaugural class.1

Figure 1. 1913 ACS Bylaws

Figure 1. 1913 ACS Bylaws

Section of American College of Surgeons 1913 Bylaws specifying criteria for Fellowship
Source: American College of Surgeons Archives

To put this into context, the Royal College of Surgeons in the U.K. initiated its first woman Fellow in 1911, 68 years after it was first established, and in 1919 still had only four women Fellows.2 The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in 1847 and greeted its first woman member in 1876, and the American College of Physicians, founded in 1915, welcomed its first woman member in 1920, at a time when its membership numbered almost 600.3

These five women Fellows of the ACS all lived in the Back Bay of Boston, MA, and had privileges at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, among other institutions (see Figure 2). This column highlights a few of their accomplishments.

Figure 2. 1913 ACS Yearbook

Figure 2. 1913 ACS Yearbook

Composite image showing sections of 1913 American College of Surgeons Yearbook listing women who had been granted FACS. The listing gives details of their training and current practice location. Note that not all listed their hospital privileges. Source: American College of Surgeons Archives

Five women inaugural Fellows

Alice G. Bryant, AB, MD, FACS, was one of the first surgeons to specialize in otolaryngology. Like most of these other pioneering women, she had an interest in public health and education. Dr. Bryant wrote several articles on scientific ventilation and humidification for The Boston Globe, and was one of the few women to have been made an honorary lifetime member of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers.4

Emma V.P.B. Culbertson, AM, MD, FACS, was “one of Boston’s best-known physicians.” Dr. Culbertson was a member of the AMA and the Massachusetts Medical Society, and was “active in furthering school and home nursing.”5

Florence West Duckering, MD, FACS, is the best known of the five and is often credited as “the first.”6 Dr. Duckering trained as a nurse in her native England and then became a naturalized U.S. citizen and surgeon. She was active in medical societies and also in education of the lay public. She was survived by a niece who not only bore her name, but went on to be elected a Fellow of the ACS.7

Jane D. Kelly Sabine, AB, MD, FACS, was a lecturer at the Sargent Normal School of Gymnastics, Boston, and listed her specialties as gynecology and orthopaedic surgery. Dr. Sabine was one of three women honored in 1948 as a 50-year member of the Massachusetts Medical Society.8

Mary Almira Smith, AM, MD, ScD, FACS, published a paper, “Splenectomy for carcinoma” in Annals of Surgery, which described a case of colloid carcinoma of the ovary metastatic to the spleen.9 She shared an office and dwelling space with Dr. Culbertson.


By 1922, when the ACS Clinical Congress met in Boston, several women had served or were serving on the Board of Governors.3 Enough women attended that Dr. Duckering, a member of the Committee on Arrangements, hosted a tea for them at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (see Figure 3).10

Figure 3. 1922 ACS Clinical Congress Program

Figure 3. 1922 ACS Clinical Congress Program

Section of Program of American College of Surgeons Clinical Congress 1922 showing Dr. Duckering’s membership on Committee on Arrangements. Source: American College of Surgeons Archives

What, in the environment of the New England Hospital for Women and Children, led these five to apply for and be granted ACS Fellowship that very first year? We would love to be able to ask them. We believe that they should be considered pathfinders, not only in the ACS, but also the earliest actively networking women surgeons.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the ACS Archivists Meghan Kennedy and Michael Beesley; the archivists at Tufts and Drexel Universities; and Jane Pietro, MD, FACS, who generously shared her research with us.


  1. American College of Surgeons. Yearbook. Chicago, IL: American College of Surgeons; 1913.
  2. Royal College of Surgeons. History of women in surgery. Available at: Accessed July 16, 2019.
  3. American College of Physicians. History of ACP. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019.
  4. Dr. Alice Bryant, surgeon, artist, is dead at 80. The Boston Globe. July 27, 1942, page 8. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019. [Subscription required for viewing.]
  5. Dr. Emma B. Culbertson to be buried in California. Boston Daily Globe. January 11, 1920, page 16. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019. [Subscription required for viewing.]
  6. Rishworth S. A short history of women surgeons in the College. Bull Am Coll Surg. 2002;87(5):34-35. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019.
  7. Dippel B. Sheboygan history: Duckering was pioneer of women doctors. Sheboygan Press. August 28, 2015. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019.
  8. Dr. Jane Sabine: Surgeon in Boston for half century. Daily Boston Globe. March 1, 1950, page 7. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2019.
  9. Smith MA. Splenectomy for carcinoma. Ann Surg. 1908;47(1):53-56.
  10. Surgeons spare no time for social functions. The Boston Globe. October 24, 1922, page 5. Available at: Accessed July 26, 2019. [Subscription required for viewing.]

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