Celebrating Dr. Aletta Jacobs
On the 11th of February, we celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and who better to write about than Dr. Aletta Jacobs, the first woman who became a doctor in the Netherlands.
Aletta Jacobs was born on the 9th of February, 1854 in the village of Sappemeer in the province of Groningen. In a time where girls were not allowed to continue towards higher education, Aletta pushed boundaries when she continued her education after primary school. When Aletta was in school, girls were not allowed to continue their studies after primary school. At first, she enrolled in a ladies’ school to learn how to behave properly in front of theirs husbands and perform household chores. Following her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor, she quit attending the ladies’ school and focused on the path to become a doctor.
As this was unprecedented at the time, she was not allowed to attend secondary schools and had to fight to receive permission to attend the local Rijks Hoogere Burgerschool. Upon completing her studies, she wrote to the local minister to argue her case on why she should be allowed to study medicine. Her relentlessness persevered and she managed to enroll at the University of Groningen to study medicine at 1871. Within the turn of the decade, Aletta had passed her medical exams and obtained her doctorate in 1879. She was not the only peerless woman in her family as her sisters (Frederika and Charlotte) followed suit and became pioneers in their own respective fields of pharmacy and mathematics.
While Aletta was not the first woman to enroll in a university in the Netherlands (the honour goes to Anna Maria van Schurman), she was the first to graduate from one.
Her success was temporarily short-lived as no hospital wanted to employ a female doctor. Rather than giving up, Aletta travelled to England to continue her work before coming back to the Netherlands to set up her own practice in Amsterdam. During her time in Amsterdam, she dedicated her time to empower women to take care of their health by providing for example free consultations to the working class.
Outside of her work in healthcare practice, she was a champion for women’s rights in the Netherlands, paving the way for women to vote in 1919. As we move forward, one must recognise the sacrifices that were made in the past to be able to reach this point in history. Everybody can learn from Aletta’s pioneering spirit to break down barriers and persevere through tough times.