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Erxleben, Dorothea Christiana Leporin

medicine degree medical university

[erks- laybn (1715–62) German physician: the first woman to gain a full medical degree in Germany.

Dorothea Erxleben’s father was a doctor in the small town of Quedlinburg, in Germany. He grieved at the waste of talented women being confined to household duties and taught his daughter alongside his son, teaching them Latin, basic science and medicine, preparing them both for a medical career. Dorothea petitioned King Frederick II for consent to accompany her brother to Halle to study for a medical degree in 1740; this was granted. However, the prospect of a woman studying medicine caused outrage; it was pointed out that, as women were forbidden by law to hold public office, they could not practise medicine and they did not need a medical degree.

War with Austria broke out and Dorothea’s brother left for military service. Alarmed at the prospect of going to university on her own, she married a widower with five children and continued to study. Her father died 6 years later leaving debts and her husband became ill; financial responsibility for the family fell to her. Her attempts to practise medicine once more fell foul of the licensed doctors of Quedlinburg, who demanded that she must sit an examination. The rector of the University of Halle decided that on the matter of women’s entry to university – ‘one designates the sex to which the degree most often applies, but by affirming the one sex the other is not excluded’; he also ruled that the profession of medicine was not the same as holding public office, so that Dorothea Erxleben was free to take her examination. She sat her final examinations without delay and was granted her degree on 12 June 1754.

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