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Doctor Who Fought For Women’s Place In Medicine Dies At 65

Sun., Feb. 8, 1998

Dr. Mary Catherine Raugust Howell, a pediatrician who championed medical careers and better health care for women, died Thursday at her home in Watertown, Mass. She was 65.

Howell was the first woman to become an associate dean at Harvard Medical School. She died of breast cancer, her family said.

Howell attracted the attention of a male-dominated establishment in 1973 with an ironically titled critique of the status quo, “Why Would a Girl Go into Medicine? Medical Education in the United States: A Guide for Women” (Feminist Press). Because Howell was a Harvard associate dean at the time, she decided to publish it under the pen name Margaret A. Campbell.

Her study of discrimination against women in medical schools, she declared in her foreword, was written “to inform and encourage women medical students of the past, present and future and to promote radical change in medical education and in the care of patients.”

While quotas were not acknowledged in the admissions offices of medical schools, she wrote, practice suggested otherwise. A “man doctor, woman nurse” mentality reigned, she said, and with it the attitude that it was imprudent to waste expensive medical training on a woman if she was unlikely to practice the profession because of marriage and motherhood.

Howell acknowledged authorship of the book a few years later. Her facts and figures were used as ammunition by many groups pressing to gain a fairer role for women in the medical field.

Howell also was active in the women’s health movement. She was a founding member of the National Women’s Health Network, formed in the 1970s to lobby for better health care for women.

“By 1975,” said Cynthia Pearson, the network’s executive director, “there were over 2,000 community-based women’s health groups that either provided direct services and education and an alternative to traditional male-dominated medical care or were engaged in efforts to change the system. Mary helped organize the first national women’s health conference, which brought individual women and representatives of grass-roots women’s health groups to the Harvard campus.”

Howell also contributed to Working Mother magazine and to “Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women” from the Boston Women’s Book Collective, whose 25th anniversary update was published by Touchstone in 1996.

Mary Catherine Raugust was born on Sept. 2, 1932, in Grand Forks, N.D., the daughter of a businessman and a former public-school teacher. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1954, studied linguistics and originally wanted to become a musician. She married Robert Jordan of Weston, Conn., and had a son, Nicholas, but the marriage failed. She then decided to become a pediatrician.

“She started to think she wanted to care for kids and went into pre-med,” said Samuel Howell, her son by a second marriage. “She was always very concerned about children and the institutional way in which medicine treats them. She fought against that all her life, trying to deinstitutionalize medicine.”

In interviews later in her life, Dr. Howell told of the slights, condescension, jokes and outright hostility she endured as a medical student and intern from school administrators, faculty members and male students. Even female patients often feared that a female doctor was inherently inferior, Howell said.

But, persisting, she earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and an M.D. at the University of Minnesota in 1962; she earned a doctor of laws degree at Harvard University in 1991.

Howell trained in pediatrics, psychotherapy, bioethics and geriatrics at various institutions as she pursued her career as a practicing doctor and educator, starting as an instructor in child development at Minnesota in 1962. She joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School as an instructor in pediatrics in 1969, rising to assistant professor of pediatrics and chief of the behavior unit in the Children’s Service of the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Howell was appointed associate dean for student affairs in 1972, becoming the highest-ranking woman at the school at the time, and served until 1975. She viewed her appointment as a kind of tokenism.

“Prior to my appointment,” she said in an interview in 1979, “a committee of students and faculty had asserted the need for a woman administrator, and Harvard got tremendous mileage out of my appointment. Student affairs are traditionally places where your job is to keep students quiet and out of everyone’s hair. The administration expected us to act as student pacifiers rather than student advocates.”

After leaving Harvard in 1975, she had a pediatric practice in York, Maine, for a year. Based on her experiences there, she wrote another book, “Healing at Home: A Guide to Health Care for Children” (Beacon Press, 1978). Howell’s second marriage, to Dr. A. Ervin Howell, ended in divorce.

In addition to her sons Nicholas Jordan, of Weston, Conn., and Samuel Howell, of Manhattan, she is survived by three other sons, Aaron Howell, of Medford, Mass., Eli Howell, of Eugene, Ore., and Ned Raugust, of Concord, Mass.; two daughters, Sarah Howell, of Framingham, Mass., and Eve Howell, of Boston; and a brother, Tony Raugust of Minneapolis.

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