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A long journey

Some one hundred and thirty years ago the trajectory of the first Brazilian women doctors began

FMUSPOdette Antunes (right) with her professor and other colleagues during an anatomy class in 1914FMUSP

The Medical School Faculty of the University of Sao Paulo (FMUSP), the most famous and productive center of healthcare, teaching and medical research in Brazil, employed its first female full professor at the end of the 20th century, in the year 1996, the pathologist and professor Maria Irma Seixas Duarte. In an interview conceded to the magazine Revista da Folha at that moment, professor Maria Irma related: “I always remember the words of a friend at the time when I was doing my residency who told me: ‘If I, as a man, am going to need to make an effort X to do something, then you can be sure that you’re going to need 2X’. I took this idea to heart and decided to no longer look into this story of male dominance. I thought: I’m going to make double the effort and that’s it.” Some one hundred and thirty years ago the condition of women in the Brazilian scenario was somewhat different – they were not even allowed to take the same higher education courses as men. Each conquest demanded a huge effort, and as well, determination and courage to lead them to victory. This was the case in 1875 with the Rio de Janeiro-born Maria Augusta Generoso Estrela, who at fifteen left for the United States to study medicine. Four years later, Josefa Águeda Felisbela Mercedes de Oliveira from the state of Pernambuco took the same journey, at the same age as Maria Augusta.

The former caught sight of her future on reading about the graduation of a North American woman doctor. Maria Augusta won out against the resistance of her father who sent her to New York where, at the end of 1876, she managed to be accepted into the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, a medical school aimed at women that was founded in 1863. Right from the start, these initial footsteps were followed by the Brazilian press that published period reports on her academic and personal life abroad. Her prestige was such that the emperor Dom Pedro II set aside a scholarship for her when her family’s  ran out of money. It was at the Medical College that Maria Augusta met Josefa, who had also managed to win over her father. Josefa and Maria Augusta developed a great friendship and together published the literary journal A Mulher [The Woman], produced in New York and distributed in the Brazilian capital cities. Both graduated in 1881.

Josefa returned to Recife and little is known of her path afterwards. Maria Augusta remained a further year abroad and afterwards returned to Rio de Janeiro where she married and practiced for many years. The unprecedented case of their struggle to study and their constant presence in the media helped in their being accepted, authorized by a teaching reform of women in higher education that began in 1879, just months after Josefa had gone to New York. With the new legislation, Rita Lobato Velho Lopes, born in the state of Rio Grande do Sul , in the  town of Sao Pedro do Rio Grande, managed to enroll in the Medical School of Rio de Janeiro during 1884, but then transferred to the Medical School of Bahia, from where she graduated as the first Brazilian woman doctor educated in the country. In Sao Paulo, the Medical and Surgical Faculty, currently the FMUSP, had their first crop in 1913, two women: Odette Nóra de Azevedo Antunes and Délia Ferraz Fávero.
Women’s conquests in medicine continued throughout the 20th century. In 1998, Angelita Gama became a full professor of surgery at the Gastroenterology Department of FMUSP. As well as overcoming two obstacles – one academic and the other in specializing -, she broke yet another taboo in relation to surgery, traditionally considered to be a masculine activity.