Madeleine Gebelin-Brès Physician against everyone


 André J. Fabre          2012

The first woman to earn a medical degree in France was Elizabeth Blackwell

This was 1849, a quarter of century after the United States and Elizabeth Blackwell


Madeleine Gebelin was the daughter of a manufacturer of carts of Nimes and during her childhood, followed her father all around Nimes. As the story goes, a visit of her father to Nimes Hospital triggered the vocation of Madeleien…

 Married at age 15 to Guillaume Bres, she convinced her husband to help her to enter medical studies.


Madeleine had in first place to obtain the Baccalaureat, primary  condition for get access to the University :  it should be reminded that Julie-Victoire Daubié had just obtained her diploma in 1861

Right after, came the hardest difficukty : get acces to registration at a Medical School/ The Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Charles Adolphe Wurtz required, In 1866 a written consent from Madeleine's husband, the wife being at that time "legally irresponsible'. Husband agreement was  obtained without difficulty, but it had to be duly registered by the mayor of the Vth arrondissement of Paris

The registration of a female student at the Faculty of Medicine became a national  affair and the Minister of Education himself, Victor Duruy had to give agreement and, finally, the Empress Eugenie had to bring in person her support, with the argument that an English student, Frances Elizabeth Hoggan had just been accepted as student  at the University of Zurich

Thanks to 1870 war, Madeleine finally could  enter the impenetrable fortress. At Hôpital  La Pitié. His master, Paul Broca famed neurologist, accepted to take Madeleine as Interne in his Departement : "Mrs. Bres, he wrote later, entered my service as a student intern in 1869 In September 1870; absence of several residents called in military hospitals, required the appointment of provisional internal, Mrs. Bres on my proposal was designated as a temporary intern. As such, during the two sieges of Paris and until the month of July 1871 she made her service with the highest dedication, even when Paris was bombed. . Mrs. Bres was always remarkable for her zeal, dedication and excellency. She was for us of the greatest help  during Paris insurrection. "

However the Supervisory Board of Assistance publique de Paris : however, after a fierce battle, Madeleine could present a doctorate Thesis, prepared in the service of a great Hygienist of that time  Prof. Robert Wurtz: "On breast and breastfeeding" jighly praised from the Jury . She was at that time  33 years old… 


Madeleine specialiozed in the field of "Mother and child medicine". She received from the  Philotechnic Association charge of health courses and the city of Paris asked her to write the guidelines for a model  nursery school and she gave in many places  lectures on hygiene for infants and children.

In 1891, the Ministry of the Interior gave her a mission of a inquiry on tnurseries in Switzerland.

After the death of her husband, having charge of four children, Madeleine started a medical practice in Paris keeping time to be editor of a newspaper entitled: "Health of Women and Children" and write several books in this field/

Blind, left without any resources, crippled, Madeleine ends her life on. November 30, 1925, Nobody reminded at that time of her heroic fight to obtain equality of rights for women/. 


Throughout XIXth century, female students had been kept in France outsile the University "The is no place for students wearinf a bun" was the motto of that time.

It was hard time for the first female students in Paris : male students threw mock projectiles in their direction…: In fact there was a corner in the amphitheaters to shelter female students.

 In fact, in 1867, the Council of Public Instruction did not hesitate to take stand against admission of female students in the Faculties, arguing that such  a change would be  "offence to moral and social conventions"


In 1881 begins a fight to obtain for female students to medical competitions. Two  great names should be cited here : White Edwards, daughter of an English physician and Augusta Klumpke coming from San Francisco who, later, married the great neurologist Dejerine.

A first prefectural decree was taken dated January 17, 1882: "Women are allowed to the Concours de l'Externat des Hopitaux under the express condition that they will not use their title in futher Concours/ "

The reglementation was modified three years later  "Female externs are admiited to the Concours of Internat in the same frame of regulations than all other Externs. " After a  violent press campaign, and a beginning of riot on the day of the Concours, the two rebels were at last admitted toi the Concours de l'Internat..

However lots of critics were stille going on !: "Women do not have the physical capacity to perform their functions, also, patients might be offended or shamous,, and the safety of a woman cannot  be adequately insured for female residents on duty:" and, last argument : "The feminization of tInternat will devalue the prestige of the title. "

At the Concours of October 1885, Augusta and Blanche Edwards Klumpke were accepted as "provisional Interns" only internal but only Augusta will be be nominated "Interne des hôpitaux  de Paris"…


After 1918, situation will drastically change : many students arrived from Russia Hair cut "like a boy", large horn-rimmed glasses , wearing men's dresses, they kept ready to fight for the equality of chances. Female residents would not shock anybody anymore…In our time, in all parts of the world, women are finally recognized as fully equal in rights and no one would question their right to become a doctor.

It is remarkable that in France, as in most other countries, the proportion of women is in full extension. Recent statistics  from the Conseil de l'Ordre ciation report that now,  more than half, 56% of practicing physicians under 35 years.

 In the modern world, only subsists  one obstacle to women's independence:religious extremism. Would it not be appropriate in our modern world,  rather than finance wars, finace women's access to education?

Date de dernière mise à jour : 30/07/2013

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