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25 March 2015

Madeleine Pelletier (1874 - 1939) Part I: psychiatrist

Anne Madeleine Pelletier was born into a poor Parisian family. Her parents had a small fruit and vegetable shop. Her father, who also was a cab driver, had radical anti-clerical views. However, her mother was religious and a royalist. They lived in a squalid one-up-one-down house. Madeleine was shunned at convent school in that she was lice-infested.

As a teenager she attended feminist and anarchist groups. Despite this, the City of Paris granted her a scholarship and in 1897 at 23 she passed the baccalaureate in philosophy and literature. From 1898 to 1903 she studied at the Faculté de Médecine.

She joined the gender inclusive Le Droit Humain Freemason lodge, where she met feminists, socialists and anarchists. It offered a forum that enabled women to gain experience in debate and public speaking.

She also met prominent members of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris (SAP) and attended SAP meetings. Here she studied the relationship between skull size and intelligence as pioneered by Paul Broca. She published four articles in the Bulletins de la Société d’Anthropologie de Paris on craniometrical measurements. The most significant of these was a study of Japanese skeletons, demonstrating that the alleged superiority of male over female skeletal development was illusory. Later she attacked the idea that women are less intelligent because of their skull size.

While still a medical student, 1901–02, Pelletier worked as interne suppléante in an asylum controlled by the medical faculty and thus avoided the required competitive examination that excluded women by law. At the end of this period, Pelletier became notable for her successful campaign to allow women to sit the public examination for the post of psychiatric intern. This done she took the examination in 1903 and passed coming sixth out of eleven candidates. She was then the first woman to work as an intern in state asylums, in her case in the Perray Vaucluse asylum.

Pelletier's doctoral dissertation, L'association des idées dans la manie aigüe et dans la débilité mentale, (The association of ideas in acute mania and mental illness) was awarded the almost unheard-of commendation of ‘extrêmement satisfaits', and as a publication went into two editions, and was reviewed in the prestigious Revue Philosophique, albeit negatively by Joseph Rogues de Fursac who was concerned that by eliding normal and abnormal states, Pelletier down-played what he considered the definitive role of heredity.

One of the papers that she wrote while an intern was ‘La prétendue infériorité psycho-physiologique des femmes’ (The supposed psycho-physiological inferiority in women) wherein she unpicks the anti-woman prejudices found in writings by prominent psychologists and anthropologists. As Gordon summarises: "To some extent, Pelletier accepts that women’s present subordination constitutes an adaptive failure, or rather is a sign of enforced adaptation. When women are accused of lacking a sense of honour, of being manipulative, vain or self-seeking (qualities not unknown in men), it is because these very qualities are weapons in the struggle for survival".

Dr Pelletier 1906
Altogether Pelletier published twelve journal articles in this period; three discuss auditory or tactile hallucinations, three others are clinical, anatomical or therapeutic studies. Working in the asylum, Pelletier wore her hair short and adopted mannish jackets. This caused no problems with the patients, but elicited negative reactions from the male interns.

To become a qualified psychiatrist it was necessary to pass the concours d’adjuvat. As with the examination for public intern, women were barred from sitting. Pelletier applied in January 1906 and was turned down. She thereupon applied for a dérogation (dispensation) assuming that as usual the bureaucracy would move slowly but she would be allowed in the next cycle in 1908. However permission was granted immediately, leaving her only one month to prepare for the exam. She gained only 26 points, but 30 were needed. She was awarded only 6 out of 10 for publications despite her impressive dissertation and her twelve journal articles. She was not allowed to re-sit the exam as the decreed age limit was 32.

This was an enormous blow to her ambitions, but she was still a doctor. She had already said: "Si j'avais des rentes, même petites, je prendrais un état civil masculin et ferais mon chemin soit dans une science, soit dans la politique ; c'est faisable" (If I had an income, however small, I would take a man's civil status and make my way in a science or in politics; it is feasible). However she needed a source of income.

Continued in Part II.

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