8 March marks not only International Women’s Day but also the day on which Aletta Jacobs (1854–1929) received her doctorate in 1879. This makes it the perfect day to celebrate Dr Jacobs and her achievements.
At the age of six, Aletta Jacobs already knew that she wanted to become a doctor, like her father Abraham and brother Julius. In her autobiography, she wrote: ‘For hours on end, I could sit and listen to their conversations, which were usually about fascinating cases at the Groningen hospital or about interesting things from father’s practice. Of course, I did not understand half of what was being discussed by the two of them. Yet, I was so fascinated by the conversations that I even preferred them to spending time with friends and playing with toys.’
Clearly, becoming a doctor was her goal from an early age and she never doubted the feasibility of this, even though at that time studying was reserved for men. She attributed this confidence to her parents, who had always treated all of their children equally and had given them the same opportunities. The road to becoming a doctor, however, proved to be long and difficult. Nevertheless, Jacobs persisted and overcame all obstacles, receiving her medical diploma in 1878. She was the first woman in the Netherlands to successfully complete a university degree.
This was not the end of Jacobs’ academic career: she wanted to obtain a doctorate degree as well. Ultimately, she decided to write her dissertation ‘on localisation of physiological and pathological phenomena in the cerebellum’. She would have preferred a different subject, one that could be useful later on in her career. She knew that, as a doctor, she did not want to focus on the brain but, in the end, she settled on this subject due to ‘a lack of resources and (…) the necessary guidance’.
Jacobs returned to her family home in Sappemeer to work on her dissertation. However, this effort was halted in the summer of 1878, when Abraham suffered a stroke. This left him partially paralysed and blind in one eye. In order to help her parents, Jacobs temporarily took over her father’s practice. The writing of her dissertation was put on the back burner and she even doubted whether there was any point in obtaining a doctorate at all, as she was already working as a doctor.
She expressed her doubts to her friends, all of whom disagreed with Jacobs’ rural practice plan: they insisted that their friend should obtain her doctoral degree and return to Amsterdam to work as a doctor there. She even received a thousand guilders from an acquaintance of her professor to be used for an overseas trip after her doctorate.
Aletta Jacobs was once again able to devote all of her time to her dissertation and obtained her doctorate in the presence of a large audience on 8 March 1879. Jacobs was the first Dutch woman to obtain a doctoral degree.
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