Mendenhall, Dorothy Reed, 1874-1964

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1874
Death 1964

Biographical notes:

Dorothy Reed Mendenhall, circa 1903

Dorothy Mabel Reed Mendenhall, born in Columbus, Ohio on September 22, 1874, was the second daughter and third and youngest child of Grace Kimball and William Pratt Reed and an important link in a long lineage of prominence and privilege. All four of Mendenhall's grandparents' families--the Kimballs, the Reeds, the Talcotts, and the Temples--traced their origins back to New England in the 1630s. Mendenhall was particularly proud of the fact that the Reed family could document its direct descendence from Thomas Dudley and Dorothy Yorke and their daughter, the poet, Anne Bradstreet, who came to Massachusetts Bay on the Arabella in 1632, and that her Talcott relatives were direct descendents of John Talcott. He had arrived had in Cambridge in 1632 and, in 1636, built the first house in Hartford, Connecticut. Her great-grandfather Richard Kimball surveyed parts of the Northwest Territory after the American Revolution and was paid for his services with grants of land. He, in turn, passed along forty acre plots of land in Cleveland, Canton, and Columbus, Ohio to his sons. By the mid-nineteenth century the Kimballs, were prominent figures in Ohio politics and society. Mendenhall's maternal grandfather, Hannibal Kimball, made his fortune in shoe and boot manufacturing. Her father William Reed joined Hannibal Kimball in his business in 1858 and, in 1867, married his eldest daughter. Mendenhall spent her early years living with her parents, her sister Elizabeth, her brother William Reed Jr., and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins on the Kimball estate on the East side of Columbus. When William Reed Sr. died from complications of diabetes and tuberculosis in 1880 he left an estate worth several hundred thousand dollars.

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. During her last year of college Mendenhall's family began to experience serious financial troubles due to wreckless spending by her mother and brother, and her sister's chronic illness and bad marriage. From this time on she played a central role in the management of the family finances. It was in large part due to the need to earn money to support herself and her family that she decided to enter newly opened Johns Hopkins University Medical School (one of first to admit women) and pursue a medical career She spent a year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1895-96 to complete required science courses and entered Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 1896 along with several other women students such as Florence Sabin and Gertrude Stein (who later dropped out). During summer of 1898 she and her classmate Margaret Long became the first women to work for a U.S. Naval Hospital when they assisted in treating Spanish/American War casualties at Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital. Mendenhall excelled at Johns Hopkins and, after graduating fourth in her class in 1900, she was awarded a prestigious internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital, serving under Dr. William Osler. The next year she became a Pathology fellow there under the direction of Dr. William Welch. During this period Mendenhall taught bacteriology, assisted at autopsies and undertook research on Hodgkin's disease. She made her best recognized contribution to medical science when she discovered the cell that is a primary characteristic of Hodgkins disease and effectively disproved the common belief that the disease was a form of tuberculosis. Mendenhall's findings, published in 1902, brought her international acclaim and the cell became known as the Reed cell (also called the Sternberg-Reed and Reed-Sternberg cell).

During the years of her fellowship at Johns Hopkins, Mendenhall had a passionate and tumultuous relationship with another pathologist, Dr. William MacCallum. Despite his professions of love for her, MacCallum repeatedly pursued other women and his infidelities ultimately drove Mendenhall to break off the relationship. She later wrote that it was her desire to make a clean break with McCallum, more than the difficulties she faced as a woman in her field, that induced her to abandon pathology and to accept an interim residency at New York Infirmary for Women and Children. At the conclusion of that post Mendenhall made the decision to pursue pediatrics and, in January of 1903 she became the first resident physician at Babies Hospital in New York City. Later that year her sister Elizabeth died after a long struggle with tuberculosis and Dorothy, who had already been supporting her mother, also took on the financial responsibility for Elizabeth's three children, Dorothy, Hart, and Ordway Furbish, ages nine, seven and six.

Dorothy 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 MacCallum 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. By this time Dorothy was already in the midst of her first pregnancy and she did not try to reestablish her career in Madison, planning instead to stay at home bearing and raising children. Her first child Margaret, born on Feb 19, 1907, died one day after her birth due to brain damage from her traumatic delivery, which also left Mendenhall suffering from pelvic injuries and puerperal sepsis. Her second child, Richard, survived his 1908 birth only to die before his second birthday from a fall off the roof of the family home in November of 1910. In between the births of Thomas, in 1910, and John, in 1913, Mendenhall's mother Grace Kimball Reed also died unexpectedly. Mendenhall's grief over these deaths complicated her already difficult transition from prominent professional woman to wife and mother, and exacerbated the problems of her disappointing marital relationship. During these years she was miserable and depressed.

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.

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.

As her children grew, Mendenhall managed her household and family much like she managed her career. She frequently reminded her sons that they were "her life's work" and emphasized their obligation to meet her very high expectations. Her early experiences with the difficult consequences of her family's squandered wealth caused her a great deal of anxiety about financial matters but also made her a shrewd investor. Despite her constant worries about spending money, however, she was never without a great deal of household help, including maids, nannies, and cooks, of whom she was also very demanding.

In 1934, when John was an undergraduate at Harvard and Tom a Ph.D. student in history at Yale, Charles Mendenhall was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After a difficult battle with the illness he died in Madison in August of 1935. Despite the apparent passionlessness of their marriage, the Mendenhalls had become loving companions over the years; Dorothy was clearly lonely after Charles's death. Nevertheless, she continued her professional work, took over sole management of the family's finances and investments, and became more demanding of her children than ever before. By the late 1930s she had already begun to refer to herself as an old woman with only a few years to live. Though she accused her sons of neglecting her in her old age, Tom and John, their wives Cornelia and Sally, and their children actually remained closely involved in her life. Mendenhall also maintained many long-time friendships, such as with her college friend Louisa Fast and, between 1936 and the 1950s, traveled frequently with friends to Mexico, Central America, California, North Carolina and other destinations. By the early 1960s her health began to fail and she was hospitalized repeatedly, though she continued to live independently through 1963. After nearly thirty years of predicting her immanent death Dorothy Reed Mendenhall died of arteriosclerotic heart disease in Chester, Connecticut on July 31, 1964 at the age of eighty-nine.

For additional biographical information see:

Jean Bergman, "Dorothy Reed Mendenhall," State Historical Society of Wisconsin Women's Auxiliary, Famous American Women, 6 (1976), 48-53.

Penina Migdal Glazer and Miriam Slater, "Motherhood and Medicine," in Unequal Colleagues: The Entrance of Women into the Professions, 1890-1940 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

Elizabeth Robinton, "Dorothy Reed Mendenhall" in Notable American Women: The Modern Period.

Obituaries appear in the Madison, WI Capital Times on July 31, 1964 and the Wisconsin State Journal, August 1, 1964.

From the guide to the Dorothy Reed Mendenhall Papers MS 101., 1811 - 1988, 1890-1957, (Sophia Smith Collection)

Public health specialist; Physician; Instructor.

Born Columbus, OH, 1874; B.L., Smith College, 1895; M.D., Johns Hopkins Medical School, 1900; intern at Johns Hopkins; received a fellowship in pathology, 1901; performed early research in Hodgkin's disease with Dr. William H. Welch and discovered the "Reed Cell" linked to the disease. Began residency at New York Infirmary for Woman and Children, 1902. Married physics professor Charles Elwood Mendenhall, 1906. Was field lecturer in home economics at the University of Wisconsin 1906-07. Began study of infant mortality, 1907; organized the first Infant Welfare Clinic in Wisconsin; medical officer for U.S. Children's Bureau, 1917-1936; performed studies in war orphanages in Europe, 1919, and in children's nutrition in England and the U.S., and infant mortality rates in Denmark and the U.S., 1926. Published articles on child welfare, health and nutrition. After observing the Danish midwifery movement, became proponent of natural childbirth.

From the description of Papers, 1811-1988 (bulk 1890-1957). (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 49302518

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Subjects:

  • Hodgkin's disease--Research
  • Women physicians--History--Sources
  • Songs
  • Women medical students--History--Sources
  • Children--Nutrition--History--20th century--Sources
  • Maternal health services--History--20th century--Sources
  • Infants--Mortality--History--Sources
  • Childbirth--History--20th century--Sources
  • Medical education--United States--History--Sources
  • Public health--History--Sources
  • Women--Health and hygiene--History--Sources
  • Medical education--History--Sources
  • Maternal and infant welfare--History--20th century--Sources

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Madison (Wis.) (as recorded)
  • Idaho (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Wisconsin (as recorded)
  • Madison (Wis.) (as recorded)
  • Europe (as recorded)