Dr. Sara Murray Jordan: A Woman Ahead of Her Time
In 2019, 50.5% of US medical school students were women. This marked the first time women accounted for the majority of all medical school students in the United States, by a slight margin. This was a milestone that women like Dr. Sara Murray Jordan, a gastroenterologist who played a key role in Lahey Clinic, wouldn’t have imagined when she began medical school.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to honor the many historic women like Dr. Jordan who helped pave the way for women in medicine today.
Under Two Conditions
Dr. Jordan was a 33-year-old single mother when she entered medical school in 1917. Women had been practicing medicine for nearly 70 years at that point, but were still grossly underrepresented in the field and in medical schools.
She was accepted into Tufts Medical School on probationary status, under the condition that she also take chemistry and zoology courses. She wasn’t immediately released from probationary status after completing the courses, so she took matters into her own hands and called for a full investigation by the American Medical Association. Not long after, she became a full-fledged medical student, no strings attached.
Dr. Jordan excelled as a student. During her second year of medical school, a well-known surgeon by the name of Dr. Frank Lahey invited her to take part in his clinical studies at the New England Deaconess Hospital. Their research on thyroid function and metabolic rate became the basis of her first scientific paper, “Basal Metabolism as an Index of Treatment in Diseases of the Thyroid,” which Dr. Lahey co-authored.
In 1921, she graduated at the top of her class. She moved to Chicago to work with a leading gastroenterologist. However she returned to Boston not long after where she joined Dr. Lahey at the new Lahey Clinic.
The World-Famous Lahey Clinic
Dr. Lahey founded his group practice in 1923 with a vision to create a clinic where different specialties worked under one roof. At the time, this was highly unusual. Within a decade, however, newspapers were calling his practice the “World-Famous Lahey Clinic.”
Dr. Jordan and an anesthesiologist by the name of Lincoln Sise were among the clinic’s founding members and were both pioneers in what were fairly new fields. In addition to seeing outpatients at the Lahey Clinic, they also traveled to perform surgeries and treat inpatients at three Boston hospitals: New England Baptist, New England Deaconess and Peter Bent Brigham.
Their services were so sought-after that they often worked shifts that were longer than 24 hours. Eventually, all their hard work paid off. By the 1930s and 40s, Lahey was known worldwide for its sophisticated treatment of gallbladder, gastrointestinal, and thyroid disorders.
A Celebrity Clinician
Dr. Jordan quickly gained respect as head of the gastroenterology department at Lahey and her success grew outside the clinic as well. Her work was widely published in medical journals and in 1942, she became the first female president of the American Gastroenterological Society. Later, she served as secretary, vice chairman and chairman of the American Medical Association’s Section on Gastroenterology.
Dr. Jordan was then known for her catchy medical advice after treating a number of celebrities with peptic ulcers. She would famously tell patients that, “every businessman over 50 should have a daily nap and nip — a short nap after lunch and a relaxing highball after dinner.” She even had her own stomach-soothing recipe, the “Jordan Highball,” made with one part orange juice and one part hot water.
Her mixed drink wasn’t the only recipe Dr. Jordan shared. With the encouragement of a patient, Harold W. Ross — then-editor of the New Yorker — Dr. Jordan wrote a cookbook, “Good Food for Bad Stomachs,” in 1951. That same year, she was one of five women to receive the Elizabeth Blackwell Citation for the teaching and practicing of medicine.
Dr. Jordan spoke often about women’s issues, insisting that, “femininity need not conflict with professional achievement.” In a 1954 article titled “The Woman Doctor of Today,” she wrote that “sex prejudice” from male physicians had existed in the past, but she felt this sentiment “no longer exists in medicine today.” Although perhaps a bit optimistic for her time, this perspective was empowering to generations of women who would become doctors long before the odds were in their favor.
A Legacy at Lahey
Thanks in large part to Dr. Jordan’s contributions, the Lahey Clinic continued to grow in size and national importance. In 1971, more than 2,000 Burlington voters, the largest number ever to attend one of the town’s meetings, voted in favor of the construction of the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington.
Unfortunately, Dr. Jordan never got to see the new building or witness Lahey transform into a multi-hospital health system. She died in 1959 at the age of 75 after diagnosing herself with colon cancer.
Fortunately, her legacy lives on at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and in the field of medicine.
Gail Hecht, the second female president of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA), put it this way:
“I was often told that Dr. Jordan gained this position [as president] because ‘all of the men were away at war.’ My bottom-line assessment is that she was ahead of her time, progressive in her thinking, strong-willed, ambitious and perhaps a bit feisty. How else could she have risen to this position at this point in time?”