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Women in Ophthalmology

The woman of the firsts – Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows

Bansal, Rolika; Spivey, Bruce E1; Honavar, Santosh G

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Indian Journal of Ophthalmology: January 2022 - Volume 70 - Issue 1 - p 7-8
doi: 10.4103/ijo.IJO_3051_21
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“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples” – Mother Teresa

Over the years, women have not only broken barriers in social aspects but have also brought in a revolution in the field of science and technology. It goes without saying that the struggles faced by them were far more complicated than we can now imagine. Be it standing up for themselves, balancing between family and work, or proving to be pioneers in their field, they have done it all with grace and panache. Several women have brought in paradigm changes in ophthalmology. We pay tribute to such women who have made their mark by laying down a strong foundation for the future and turning the ripples of change into strong tides over time.

Ophthalmology has seen several legendary women who have broken the formidable barriers, and the woman of the “firsts” happens to be Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows (April 17, 1845–October 24, 1913) [Fig. 1], who had phenomenal achievements in the 68 years of her career. Dr. Barrows was the first American woman to undergo specialized training in ophthalmology.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows (1845–1913), the woman of the firsts (Credit: Hartland Historical Society)

Born on April 17, 1845 in Irasburg to Scottish immigrant parents,[1] little Isabel learned the elements of care and the art of communication very early on from her father, Dr. Henry Hayes, a family doctor, and mother, Anna Gibb Hayes, a schoolteacher. After primary education, she enrolled at the Adams Academy in Derry, and following graduation in 1862, she gravitated to teaching Botany at Mt. Holyoke. However, she had to abandon the idea due to her mother’s illness. Her participation in missionary work inclined her toward human rights and kindled her interest to possibly pursue medicine as a profession.

On September 26, 1863, young Isabel married a Congregational minister, William Wilberforce Chapin, and as per Reverend William’s assignment, she shifted to Ahmednagar, India.[2] To her fate, she miscarried their first child followed by losing her husband to diphtheria within three months of their arrival in India.[3] During her short yet eventful stay in India, she contributed by teaching at a school for girls.[1]

“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” – Ayn Rand

After her return to the United States with a dream to pursue medicine, the 19-year-old widow was an unstoppable wave of energy and found a job at Dr. James Jackson’s Water Cure Hospital in Danville, New York to earn for her education, where she pursued hydropathy and fell in love with Jackson’s secretary and a stenographer to the Secretary of State, Samuel June Barrows. They married on June 28, 1867. With Samuel’s constant encouragement, Isabel aimed at pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. However, she had to put her medical education on hold due to the health issues of her husband. She took care of his work, that is, personal secretary to Secretary of State William Seward, and while doing so, she happened to be the first woman to be equally paid while working for the State Department.

As she got back to pursuing her medical career after her husband’s recovery, she developed an interest in surgery while attending the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Her inclination toward ophthalmology developed in 1869 as she traveled to Europe and studied under the legendary Professor Johann Friedrich Horner at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. She earned her medical degree at the University of Leipzig, Germany [Fig. 2] and continued her studies at the clinics of Ferdinand Arlt and Eduard Jaeger in Vienna. It was then that Professor Haeger was impressed by her surgical skills as she performed a cataract surgery “without a tremor.” Professor Jaeger is said to have vehemently declared “Frau doctor! Heute haben Sie ihre Knechten Sporne gewonnen!” (Today you have won your spurs of knighthood).[4]

Figure 2
Figure 2:
The University of Leipzig, the European college where Dr. Barrows earned her medical degree[1]

After training in ophthalmology, Dr. Barrows returned to Washington DC and set up her office at 628 F street with a set of instruments worth $100 and a signage that read “to tell the world that there was (a woman) oculist,” and she turned out to be the first woman private practitioner in Washington, DC and the first woman ophthalmologist in the United States.

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” – Maya Angelou

She proved it right by being the first woman professor at a medical school—at Howard University where she taught between 1870 and 1873 and cared for patients at Freedman’s Hospital. As per the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Code of Medical Ethics, physicians were required to be “recognized by this Association” and women were not admitted to AMA at that time. Even then, she was employed at the University as the Pomeroy Professor in Ophthalmology, purely considering her exemplary clinical skills.[5] The first woman member of AMA was finally admitted in 1876, and the first woman in The American Academy of Ophthalmology was admitted in 1904.

Family priorities took over yet again when in 1873 she followed her husband into ministry in Massachusetts and took care of her orphan nephew and her daughter, Mabel Hayes Barrows, who grew up eventually to be a director, dancer, and women’s suffrage activist following her mother’s footprints. In 1880, together with her husband, she took up the editorship of The Christian Register,[6] a Unitarian monthly magazine, and highlighted their ideas on social reforms. For 16 years, they together worked for several social reform movements, including women’s rights, temperance, peace, education, immigration reform, black civil rights, and prison reform.[1] Being in sync with her husband’s initiatives, Dr. Barrows contributed significantly to the drive for prison reforms and was an active member in the Women’s Committee to Inspect Women’s Institutions and a secretary of the Lake Mohonk Conference on black rights.

“I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse” – Florence Nightingale

Dr. Barrows was driven to bring a change and wrote tirelessly about prison reforms and authored and co-authored several books and magazine articles along with delivering several lectures all over the United States and Europe. To honor her contributions in bringing in social reforms, the Republic of France made her a member of the Order of Chevaliers. She continued to pursue human rights interests, most notably traveling to Russia to try to free Catherine Breshkovsky, considered as “the grandmother of the Russian Revolution,” who stayed in prison for over four decades. Unfortunately, Dr. Barrows’ efforts ultimately were unsuccessful. While she fought for Breshkovsky, Samuel Barrows died in 1909. Dr. Barrows took his place at the Congress in Paris and worked for women’s prison reform and human rights issues. She also wrote about her husband in a book titled “A Sunny Life, a biography of Samuel June Barrows”,[7] which was published by Little, Brown and Company in 1913 a few months before her death on October 24, 1913 at Croton-on-Hudson, New York.[8] Her daughter, Mabel Hay Barrows Mussey, after for mother’s death in 1913, wrote a beautiful memoir, “In memory of Isabel C. Barrows whose life was a hymn of love, joy, and service,” encapsulating the essence of her mother’s lifelong efforts.[9]

As per the data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the number of women ophthalmologists has increased significantly over the past few decades. In 1969, women accounted to a standstill of 10.8%, increasing significantly to 25.3% in 2000 and 39.8% in 2018.[10] Ophthalmology was also quoted as the branch with the highest rate of yearly percentage increase. Not one but several legendary women are responsible for bringing in a revolution, and in this series of articles, we shall be writing about a few of the many “Women in Ophthalmology” who have left indelible footprints in the world of ophthalmology.


1. Bella Chapin Barrows, History of American Women 2015 Available from: Last accessed on 2021 Nov 28
2. William Wilberforce Chapin Papers, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University in the City of New York
3. Vermont Women's History Project, Vermont Historical Society, Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows Available from: Last accessed on 2014 Oct 01
4. Ross RD Pioneering women in ophthalmology AlbertDMEdwardsDD The History of Ophthalmology Cambridge, MA Blackwell Science 1996 275 8 282–3
5. Lam DS A Historical, Biographical and Statistical Souvenir Washington, DC R. Beresford 1900 117 260
6. Isabel Chapin Barrows:Love and Tragedy in the 19th Century, The Burke Library Blog Available from: Last accessed on 2021 Nov 28
7. Holmes R Bella Chapin Barrows:So Much in a Lifetime Londonderry News Available from: Last accessed on 2021 Nov 28
8. McPherson AR, Albert DM Two Pioneer 19th-century women who breached ophthalmology's glass ceiling Ophthalmology 2015 122 1067 9
9. Mussey MH Social Hymns of Brotherhood and Aspiration New York The A. S. Barnes Company 1914
10. Linscheid LJ, Holliday EB, Ahmed A, Somerson JS, Hanson S, Jagsi R, et al. Women in academic surgery over the last four decades PLoS One 2020 15 e0243308
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