Dr. Barbara Bartlett Stimson ’19, a highly respected, path-breaking orthopedic surgeon served as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps throughout World War II, with tours in England, North Africa, and Italy. Stimson was the first female member of the New York Surgical Society and of the American Association of the Surgery of Trauma. During her civilian life, she practiced medicine in New York, Poughkeepsie, and Owls Head, Maine.
Barbara Stimson was born in 1898, the youngest of seven children of Rev. Dr. Henry A. Stimson, the founding pastor of the Manhattan Congregational Church, and Alice Wheaton Bartlett Stimson. The Stimson family was a particularly illustrious one; Barbara Stimson’s cousin Henry L. Stimson served as secretary of war and secretary of state and her sister, Julia Stimson ’01, was head of the Nursing Service of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I and superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps—with the rank of major—during the interwar years.
Barbara Stimson’s parents had progressive ideas about their children’s education. “Father was miles ahead of the rest of the world,” Dr. Stimson recalled, “in an educational philosophy for his four daughters. We were never told ‘you mustn’t do that—it’s only for boys.’… And Mother, profiting by her own unpleasant experience, had sworn a little swear that any daughter of hers would do what she wanted to do.” All five Stimson daughters attended Vassar: Alice Stimson Smith ’01; Julia Stimson ’01; Lucille Stimson Harvey ’04; Dorothy Stimson ’12; and Barbara Stimson ’19.
Barbara Stimson attended the Spence School and then Vassar, paying for her education through fellowships and tutoring work. While at Vassar, Stimson majored in chemistry, although history and literature were her favorite subjects. She played hockey and basketball, and she ran track on her class teams. Upon graduation, she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and won the Phi Beta Kappa Prize as well as a graduate fellowship.
Stimson was in the 3rd class to admit women at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She interned at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, the second woman to have a surgical internship there, and then received a National Research Council fellowship and a surgical fellowship at Columbia University. Stimson became a member of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center’s staff in 1928, working under her mentor, Dr. William Darrach, in his new fracture service. Of Darrach—a few years later, a Vassar trustee—Stimson said, “He was a wonderful man and a wonderful teacher. If I have been able to accomplish anything, it has been largely through his training, advice and encouragement,” and Darrach said of Stimson, “She’s no lady. She’s a DOCTOR!” In 1934, Dr. Stimson was admitted as a fellow to the American College of Surgeons. Stimson also operated a private practice and served as alumnae trustee of Vassar from 1937 to 1941, during which time she aided in the construction of Baldwin House, the campus medical center. She also wrote A Manual of Fractures and Dislocations (1939).
In August of 1941, Barbara Stimson and Vassar doctor Dr. Achsa Bean sailed for England, responding to the British Emergency Medical Service’s request for American female doctors for the defense effort. Upon the United States’ entrance into the war after the December 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks, both Stimson and Bean were commissioned as officers in the Royal Army Medical Corps, since the United States Army was not commissioning women in the Medical Corps at the time. Stimson received the rank of major. She explained, “Dr. Bean and I enrolled, in the first place, because we felt that we had something to learn from the British and that, when the time came, our country could benefit from the experience of the British and avoid a number of mistakes.”
In January 1943, “Major Barbara,” as she was generally known, was ordered by her commanding officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps to return to the United States to speak to her cousin Secretary Stimson about the lack of commissioned female doctors in the United States Army. “Cousin Henry,” she recalled of the meeting, “who had just arrived from the Pentagon, welcomed me with a kiss. He looked at me critically and said, ‘Babbie, I don’t like to see you in that (British) uniform.’ This gave me the opening I needed. I merely answered, ‘But you don’t give commissions to women doctors in the Army Medical Corps.’ He looked quite surprised and the subject was dropped, but later he asked that I go with him to the Pentagon the next morning.”
Three months after Dr. Stimson’s meeting at the Pentagon, the United States Army began to commission women in the medical department. Now returned to London, Dr. Stimson was asked to transfer to a United States unit, but the only open position was that of a gynecologist for the Women’s Army Corps; Stimson declined, electing to stay with the Royal Army Medical Corps. In November 1943, she was sent to set up an orthopedic center in Algiers, treating wounded from the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. The center was eventually moved to Pompeii, and then to Rome, as the front advanced into Italy. For her war service, Stimson was awarded the military medal of a Member of the Order of the British Empire, the first American woman to receive such an honor, as well as investiture as Associate Officer of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Her full investiture followed in 1960.
Upon her return to the United States in 1945, Barbara Stimson returned to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. In 1947, she transferred to Poughkeepsie, New York, where she developed and directed the Bone and Joint Department at St. Francis Hospital. In 1950, Stimson received the Elizabeth Blackwell Citation, in the second group of recipients of the award established by the New York Infirmary in honor of the British-born Blackwell, who, in 1849, became the first woman to gain a medical degree in the United States. During her time in Poughkeepsie, Stimson served in various capacities at five regional hospitals, while commuting to New York City to serve as a clinical professor in orthopedics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia. In 1959, she was elected president of Dutchess Council medical society, the first woman selected for this position. Stimson was named “Woman-of-the Year” in 1963 by the Poughkeepsie Business and Professional Women’s Club.
In 1963, Barbara Stimson retired to Owls Head, Maine, where she served as a staff member at the former Knox County General Hospital and on the courtesy staff of Penobscot Bay Medical Center. Also during this time, Stimson assisted Dr. Hans Kraus of Columbia in founding a program for the prevention of sports injuries. The first edition of Kraus’s The Causes, Prevention and Treatment of Sports Injuries (1981) was dedicated to her. Stimson lived in Maine with Dr. Achsa Bean until Bean’s death in 1975, and then with her sister Dorothy Stimson ’12. Barbara Stimson died in 1986 at the age of eighty-eight in Rockport, Maine.
One of 12 women profiled in Sally Elizabeth Knapp’s Women Doctors Today (1947), Stimson reflected on being a female in a male-dominated profession:
“I don’t have any use for all this talk about how much masculine prejudice women physicians have to fight within the profession. I was at a meeting just recently where women doctors were talking about how rotten men were to them. I disagreed and said so. Men have always given me a square deal as a doctor…. I will admit, however, that a woman physician often has to be a shade better than the man applying for the same job in order to get it – but I think that is true the world over.”
In 1987, Dorothy Stimson published Major Barbara’s Memories of World War II, based on her sister’s memoirs.
Sally Elizabeth Knapp, Women Doctors Today, New York, 1947.
“Rev. Dr. Stimson Dies in 94th Year: Founder of Manhattan Church Was Uncle of H. A. Stimson”, The New York Times, July 19, 1936.
“Army Rank for Dr. B. Stimson: American Woman Surgeon Is Made a Major in British Medical Service” The New York Times, February 08, 1942.
“5 Women Honored for Medical Work: Blackwell Awards Conferred for Physicians’ Role in Practice and Teaching,” The New York Times, January 30, 1950.
“Academic Honor,” Vassar Miscellany News, March 8, 1919.
“Alumnae Notes,” Vassar Miscellany News, October 31, 1934.
“Infirmary Is Well Planned, Efficient, Says Dr. Baldwin,” Vassar Miscellany News, May 11, 1940.
“Dr. Stimson, Now Bone Surgeon, Once was Vassar ‘Bloomer Girl’,” Vassar Miscellany News, December 1, 1954.
Barbara Bartlett Stimson, MD, “I Don’t Like To See You In That British Uniform,” Legacy of Heroes, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, https://www6.aaos.org/About/Heroes/stories/stimson.cfm .
“Henry L. Stimson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/566387/Henry-L-Stimson>.
A Documentary Chronicle of Vassar College, https://chronology.vassar.edu/ .
Barbara Stimson, Alumnae Files, Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).