A pioneering neurophysiologist and supporter of allowing women to pursue studies in the sciences despite a prevailing gender bias, Dr. Ida Henrietta Hyde (1857-1945) was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in science at Heidelberg University in Germany. She pursued original zoological research on animal cardiac movement, circulation, respiration, and nervous systems. In addition to laboratory work, teaching, and scholarly writing, Hyde assisted other women locate scholarships, education, and jobs suited to their talents and professional aspirations.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, on September 8, 1857, Henrietta Hyde was one of four children born to Chicago businesswoman Babette Loewenthal and Meyer Heidenheimer, a merchant. The Heidenheimers altered their surname to Hyde after emigrating from Germany. Her mother supported the family, who lost both residence and business in the great Chicago Fire of 1870.
Advancement by Slow Degrees
In her teens, Hyde apprenticed at hat-making at an urban clothing factory and toiled at the trade for seven years. She longed to study at the Athenaeum, a Chicago Museum, and spent her work-day lunch breaks reading a discarded biology book she retrieved from a packing crate. Intrigued by science, she walked several miles to work and saved her unspent car fare to pay college tuition for night classes at the University of Illinois. At her brother's graduation from the university, she met female student role models and longed to be a part of academic life and to increase her knowledge of living things.
Against her family's wishes, Hyde took entrance exams at the University of Illinois. After her brother became ill, she temporarily shelved her plans for higher education and tended him at home. In 1881, on limited savings, she enrolled at the university for one year to study natural history, the basis for a teaching job. While instructing seven-and eight-year-olds for seven years in Chicago public schools, she compiled a system-wide science curriculum.
Prepared for a Career in Laboratory Research
Discontent in the classroom, Hyde completed a B.S. degree in pre-medicine at Cornell University in three years and initiated graduate study at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania under Dr. Jacques Loeb, an expert on physiochemical processes in animals. During the summer, as the first female researcher at Woods Hole Marine Laboratory Corporation, a scholarly consortium operated in Massachusetts by the U.S. Fish Commission, Hyde analyzed octopus embryos, jellyfish development, and the respiration of grasshoppers, horseshoe crabs, skates, amphibians, and mammals. In 1892, as an official Woods Hole investigator, she lectured on the anatomy and embryology of Scyphomedusae, the class of sea animals comprised of jellyfish and other gelatinous organisms.
Hyde's work in zoology impressed a colleague, Professor Goette. Her findings regarding the neurophysiology of vertebrates and invertebrates ended a longstanding scholarly dispute between Goette and a colleague named Klaus who taught in Vienna. Goette extended to Hyde an invitation to conduct further research at the University of Strassburg, France. She paid her tuition with a fellowship she received from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, later known as the American Association of University Women.
A Challenge to Academic Gender Bias
Hyde's laboratory work was so advanced and thorough that Professor Goette offered her reports to the academic committee in lieu of a doctoral dissertation. Because the university was governed by a heavy-handed Prussian sexism, the academic staff rejected her petition to take final exams and, solely on the basis of gender, refused to grant her a doctorate in physiology. With a stipend from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, Hyde transferred to the University of Heidelberg, where a more liberal staff objectively evaluated her achievements and admitted her as a doctoral candidate.
Despite being enrolled in the biology Ph.D. program, Hyde faced a new obstacle in the person of physiologist Dr. Wilhelm Kuhne, a noted researcher who coined the word "enzyme." Kuhne refused to seat her in lectures and labs, which had been limited to males since the Middle Ages. For six semesters, she studied independent of the classroom and of hands-on laboratory projects by poring over his assistants' notes and lab sketches. After a four-hour oral examination by Kuhne's academic committee, she earned the professor's respect and proved her worthiness for a Ph.D. However, instead of the summa cum laude degree she qualified for, Kuhne conferred a doctorate multa cum laude superavit—Latin for "She overcame with much praise." Kuhne concocted the belittling phrase to acknowledge her brilliance, yet reserve the highest honors for male students only.
On Kuhne's recommendation, Hyde earned a postdoctoral position at the Heidelberg-supported research program at the Naples Marine Biological Laboratory, where she studied the nature and function of salivary glands. To ease the lives of subsequent female staff members, Hyde arranged for a permanent visiting professorship for women. After more research at the University of Berne, Switzerland, she obtained a fellowship to Radcliffe College of Harvard University and became the first female researcher at Harvard Medical School. Her laboratory findings resulted in an article, "The Effect of Distention of the Ventricle on the Flow of Blood through the Walls of the Heart," which she published in 1898 in the first issue of the American Journal of Physiology.
A Rigorous, Eventful Career
At age 41, Hyde joined the staff at the University of Kansas under the counsel of Chancellor Francis H. Snow, who admired her accomplishments and chose her to strengthen the physiology program at the university's medical school. As an associate professor, she taught undergraduates and developed new curriculum. Simultaneously, she wrote articles on cell study for the University of Kansas Science Bulletin and issued two textbooks, Outlines of Experimental Physiology (1905) and Laboratory Outlines of Physiology (1910), the latter widely adopted as an undergraduate research manual.
Hyde, who never found fulfillment in teaching, sought outside projects that could benefit from her knowledge of living organisms and possibly lead to scientific breakthroughs. She analyzed the effect of oxygen deprivation on grasshopper brains, studied the effects of music on human listeners' blood pressure, and published findings on the breathing, heart action, and blood flow in skates. Her extensive laboratory findings resulted in numerous articles on developing embryos and on the microtechniques of cell study. For her incisive writings contributing to the knowledge of cell and organ function, in 1902 Hyde was named the first female member of the American Physiological Society.
Even after the University of Kansas promoted Hyde to full professor and appointed her to chair its newly created physiology department, sexism continued to dominate academia. She earned a lower salary than male professors having comparable rank, achievements, and duties. The University's board of regents denied her funding for compiling and publishing a laboratory guide for student use. Undeterred, Hyde continued to press for full participation for women in all phases of school life. Among her pro-woman innovations at the university was the addition of restroom facilities to the science building for female faculty and students.
Hyde refused to let gender bias diminish her enthusiasm or intrude on her personal principles and educational methods. She instructed classes on hygiene, public health, human reproduction, and sexually transmitted disease, intimate subjects generally avoided by polite society. To avoid shocking any students with a direct discussion of human sexuality, she read lines of poetry referring to human and animal reproduction. In lieu of anatomical charts of male and female, during lectures referencing such matters she pointed to the organs of nude Greek and Roman statues.
Hyde did some of her most satisfying work late in her career. At age 55 she completed the remaining requirements for a medical degree at Chicago's Rush Medical College. To educate Kansans on promiscuous sex and disease, she carried classroom lessons on gonorrhea and syphilis to factory women. To prevent crippling and death from spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, she teamed with medical doctors to examine school children. For her volunteerism and promotion of state health in women and children, in 1918, Governor Arthur Capper named Hyde chair of the Kansas Women's Committee on Health, Sanitation, and National Defense. During World War I President Woodrow Wilson selected her to chair the U.S. Women's Commission on Health and Sanitation.
In 1920, the year American women gained the right to vote, Hyde retired from teaching. She continued her involvement in both academic pursuits and the attainment of rights for female scientists. On return to Heidelberg, she studied the effects of radiation on human tissue, the syndrome that killed Nobel Price-winning physicist Marie Curie. Hyde also funded scholarships at Cornell University and established the Ida H. Hyde Scholarship for the Biological Sciences at the University of Kansas, which funds educational opportunities for female researchers in biological, chemical, or physical research. One of the university's first endowments, it set a standard for supporting females in pursuit of higher education. With $25,000 of her own money, she later endowed the Ida H. Hyde Woman's International Fellowship of the American Association of University Women. In June 1938, she criticized 19th-century gender discrimination in "Before Women Were Human Beings: Adventures of an American in German Universities in the '90s," a darkly humorous autobiographical article about her experiences at Heidelberg University that appeared in the Journal of the American Association of University Women.
On August 22, 1945, Hyde died from cerebral hemorrhage at her home in Berkeley, California; she was 88 years old. History has since lauded her for developing a micro-electrode powerful enough to stimulate tissue chemically or electronically and small enough to inject or remove tissue from a cell. This multi-use device, which records the electrical activity within cells, has since revolutionized the study of contractile nerve tissue.
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