12 February 2010


Have you seen this riddle, which has made its rounds for some years?

A father and his son were driving to a ball game when their car stalled on the railroad tracks. In the distance a train whistle blew a warning. Frantically, the father tried to start the engine, but in his panic, he couldn't turn the key, and the car was hit by the onrushing train. An ambulance sped to the scene and picked them up. On the way to the hospital, the father died. The son was still alive but his condition was very serious, and he needed immediate surgery. The moment they arrived at the hospital, he was wheeled into an emergency operating room, and the surgeon came in, expecting a routine case. However, on seeing the boy, the surgeon blanched and and muttered, "I can't operate on this boy--he's my son."

The answer, of course, is that the surgeon is the boy's mother, a scenario that many people do not think of.

Because our assumptions just might be based on some reality, the riddle brings up the question of how many female surgeons there actually are. I found an article in the Canadian Journal of Surgery, Aug. 2009, titled "The History of Women in Surgery." It relates that the first evidence of a female surgeon dates back to Ur, in 3,500 BCE; they were also active in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Italy.

However, until 1970, women never made up more than 6% of any medical class in the US or Canada, and not more than 2% of surgical classes. Beginning around 1970, there was an increase in female physicians; and by 2001, females made up 24% of all physicians. Currently, the sex ratio in medical school enrollment is about 50/50.

But, the datum of interest to us here is the percentage of female surgeons, concerning which the article states that in 1980 women made up only 2% of all surgeons in the U.S., including obstetricians and gynecologists. By 2001 (is this the most recent the authors could find?), the number rose to only 14%.

Admittedly, my experience with medical workers is very limited, but I have known and now know female doctors; I have never known of a female surgeon. Thus, when I first encountered this riddle some years ago, I was momentarily stumped. Perhaps, I would have expected a woman to have been labeled just that, with an explanatory adjective: a "female surgeon."

No excuse, really; it does point to entrenched, prejudicial thinking (mine and surely others'), which lags behind social change. I'm sure there are lots of instances of prejudicial thinking, but, as an example, even now, when we think of general "college student," we should be thinking (according to actual college-enrollment data) "female."

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