Born on August 31st, 1842 in London, Mary was the eldest of 11 children of George and Victorine Putnam, and she spent most of her youth in New York City.
In Mary’s time, women were seldom allowed to receive an advanced formal education, for women were only meant to have children and maintain a home. To admit them to a college would deprive men of that opportunity.
Women had no vote, could not own property and were essentially the wards of their fathers and subsequently their husbands and sons.
But Mary had two advantages. One was her father was the head of Putnam, a major book publisher, so she came from money. The other advantage was she was bright and an excellent writer and at the age of 19, had her first story published in the Atlantic Monthly, the U.S.’s most prominent magazine of that time.
Mary studied science and medicine using tutors and wanted to become a doctor but her father believed the medical profession was “repulsive,” and he forbade Mary from pursuing a medical career.
But Mary persuaded him to change his mind, and despite the difficulty in getting admitted to a college to pursue an advanced education, in 1863, she graduated from the New York College of Pharmacy. A year later, Mary received her M.D. from what would later become the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
Mary took an internship at New England Hospital for Women and Children, and then decided she wanted to attend one of the world’s great medical schools, the famous Ecole de Médecine at the University of Paris.
But despite her outstanding academic achievements, Mary was rejected because this renowned medical school did not admit women. Yet Mary refused to be turned away, and after an extensive negotiation, the school allowed her to take classes and then finally admitted her as its first female student.
Mary graduated in July of 1871 with highest honors and in the fall she returned to New York and began a private medical practice, specializing in healthcare to the poor and indigent.
And Mary was admitted to the American Medical Association as well, one of the first women ever admitted.
Mary also became a professor at the new Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary and a year later, she established the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women, serving as its president from 1874 to 1903.
In Mary’s private life, in 1873, she married Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a preeminent pediatrician, and they would have three children. Unfortunately, only one of those children survived to adulthood, Marjorie Jacobi McAneny.
But as activists, Mary and Abraham fought for the rights of New York’s poor people and tried to persuade the city to offer the poor better, safer housing and to tear down the horrific slums that then existed. They also fought for the rights of women and for equal opportunity in education.
And they fought as well for the rights of African Americans and Native Americans.
As a suffragette, in 1894 Mary gave a remarkable but controversial speech to the New York suffragette convention which she would later expand upon and publish as the book “Common Sense Applied to Woman Suffrage.” For it was clear to Mary women would never have equal rights without the vote.
As a medical practitioner and as a writer, Mary wrote nine books and 120 medical articles. She also edited her husband’s “Infant Diet.”
But then tragedy struck. Being the outstanding doctor she was, Mary diagnosed her own brain tumor, and she knew there was no cure. She died on June 10th, 1906 at the age of 63.
But Mary’s prominence as a physician, writer and political activist made a huge difference in helping women get into the medical field and to subsequently attain the right to vote.
And with her husband, Mary helped to provide a voice for the poor, the dispossessed, and to racial minorities confronting bigotry and to other people for whom she had opened her heart.