The Mosher Report

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Having vanquished one myth, Mosher turned to “functional periodicity,” the allegedly insurmountable barrier that excluded women from the working world. The bias she was working against was formidable; one writer of the time described menstruation as “a constantly recurring infirmity that occupies seven years out of thirty of a woman’s adult life.” That view was a common one, but Mosher noted that most of the grim literature on female physiology sprang from male experience with pathological female patients. She decided to study healthy women, in order to determine what normal menstruation was, what factors made it abnormal, and whether these factors could be modified. She devised a detailed questionnaire that she gave to her women students, who began to keep careful monthly records.

Mosher soon realized that she was in over her head. If her work was to have credibility, and if she was to interpret her vast mass of data accurately, she would need training in medicine. In the spring of 1896, at age thirty-two, she applied to and was accepted by the recently opened Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Borrowing money from her widowed mother, Mosher headed for Baltimore in the fall of 1896 to become one of thirteen women in a class of forty-one.

At Hopkins, Mosher later wrote, she found both sympathy for her interest in women’s physiology and respect for the women students. She also found a female support network in operation. Gertrude Stein, who entered the medical school the year after Mosher (but never graduated), recalled that such formidable women as M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr, and other members of the Women’s Medical Fund, which had been instrumental in opening the school to women, would visit the women students over tea, urging them to study hard and not to disgrace themselves, their gender, or the fund.

The faculty evidently thought well of Mosher, and upon graduation, at age thirty-six, she was selected for a one-year externship in the dispensary at the Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Howard Kelly also selected her to serve as gynecological assistant in his sanitorium. Mosher thought she knew what had brought her to the administration’s attention. Early in 1900 George Engleman, a Boston gynecologist, learned of the menstrual records she had collected at Stanford. He wanted the data and tried through a colleague at Hopkins “to put the screws on Miss Mosher” so he could get her records. The colleague ignored him. Finally Engleman wrote directly to Mosher, asking to have the records but adding, “If you wish to utilize your observations for any special purpose, I should ask at least to give me general results.” Mosher certainly did wish to utilize her observations; she held her ground and refused to relinquish her data. The incident may have prompted her lifelong protectiveness of her research, but it also brought her work to the attention of the Hopkins authorities and, she believed, resulted in the appointments.

During her additional year at Hopkins, Clelia Mosher began to analyze the data that Engleman had sought, which included menstrual records of over four hundred healthy women, plus physical examinations. Her preliminary findings led to her first scientific publication, “Normal Menstruation and Some of the Factors Modifying It,” in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin . In this paper she tentatively identified four factors contributing to monthly disability: constricting clothing, inactivity, chronic constipation, and the general expectation that discomfort was inevitable. Each of these, she noted severely, was reversible and not physiological.

At the end of the year Kelly offered Mosher a permanent position in the gynecology department. Would she, she asked, be trained as a gynecological surgeon? Kelly said he would train her, but he doubted whether any man would be willing to work under a woman. Mosher declined the offer. Instead, she returned to California, taking her mother with her, and opened a private practice in PaIo Alto. Once settled, she took up gardening with a passion. The skill that had paid her way to college now became her chief recreation. From her lush descriptions of each new leaf, bulging seed pod, and vanquished fungus, it is clear that the emotional investment in her garden was enormous. Outside her work, her garden was to become her chief solace.

 

After opening her practice, Mosher embarked on a long round of grant applications, seeking funds for her menstruation studies. All the institutions to which she applied rejected her. Her research stood still for nearly a decade, to her intense frustration. So when an opportunity arose in 1910 to return to Stanford as assistant professor of personal hygiene and medical adviser for women, she jumped at it. Back in a university, with well-equipped laboratories and an abundant supply of subjects, Mosher resumed her studies and, within the year, published her first major article on menstruation. Further research had confirmed her earlier findings; there was no physiological reason why most normal, healthy women should be incapacitated by menstruation.