Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Bessie Moses (1893-1965)
MSA SC 3520-13582

Biography:

Health care in the early decades of the twentieth century was undergoing a period of great development and professionalization, which ushered in a time of enhanced medical aid for society.  However, studies of women's health and services related to female care remained relatively limited.  Information concerning reproductive health, contraception, and abortion was extremely controversial and was, in many cases, not addressed by health care professionals during this period.  The availability of such information and the attitude of the medical community towards these areas of female health endured until the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.   Restrictions on reproductive information and health procedures available to women were brought about with the passage of the Comstock Law in 1873, which prohibited the dissemination of contraceptive advice, materials, and information through the mail.   Although in many cases women, namely from the middle-class, were able to circumvent the laws that censored them, poorer segments of society were drastically affected by the lack of necessary medical information and care needed to prevent dire circumstances, such as death, that resulted from the use of home remedies to induce abortions, the consequences of botched abortions performed by unqualified individuals, and the absence of self-awareness about the female body.1  The Birth Control movement, initiated in the first years of the twentieth century, was the primary catalyst for change in the availability of information and materials that allowed women, for the first time, to educate themselves about the various avenues open to implement family planning, learn about their bodies, and find health care facilities specifically tailored to their needs.  Margaret Sanger, one of the most visible and controversial, figures of the movement worked tirelessly to aid women, especially those of the lower class, in reproductive matters to improve and extend the quality of life.  In Brooklyn, New York, she founded the first birth control clinic in the United States that became the model for similar clinics around the world.  Bessie Moses, a protégé of Sanger, founded a birth control clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, to serve the medical needs of women.  Persevering in the face of laws that could, at any moment, close her clinic and fighting for the opportunity to expand women's health and reproductive knowledge, Bessie Moses devoted her life to these causes and became one of the leaders in a period that saw the development of the medical field into that of today.


Bessie Louise Moses was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on December 21, 1893.  Her parents were of German-Jewish origins and had established themselves as well-respected individuals in the city.  Her father, Bernard Moses, was a successful salesman and an active member in community affairs.  Her mother, Bertha Manko Moses, remained in the home caring for their growing family.  The Moses daughters were encouraged by their parents to develop a strong sense of the value of learning.  Bessie attended public schools in the area, excelled in her studies, and graduated from Western High School in 1911.  She attended Goucher College, graduating with her BA in 1915.  Between her junior and senior years of college, Bessie had worked at the Woods Hold Biological Laboratory, which fed her interests in medicine and the sciences.2  Keen in continuing her studies, Bessie spent the next year as a graduate student in the Biology department of The Johns Hopkins University.  However, her father, citing a lack of finances and uncertainty of the suitability of the medical field as a viable path for his daughter, encouraged Bessie to pursue a teaching career as her sister had done.  Although discouraged, she spent the next two years as a teacher of biology and zoology, first at Sarah Newcomb College in New Orleans, and then at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.  After finally convincing her family of the value of a medical career for women and her intense interest in pursuing that field, Bessie returned to Baltimore and re-entered Johns Hopkins in 1918, earning her medical degree in 1922.3  Already aware of the lack in women's health care, Bessie Moses decided to become an obstetrician and gynecologist.  She interned at the Johns Hopkins Hospital just after graduation and then transferred to the Women's Hospital in Philadelphia.  The Women's Hospital was a pioneering institution for its time because it employed an all-female staff, complete with female physicians of various specializations, to care for women patients.  This experience undoubtedly opened Moses's eyes to the advantages and possibilities offered by such a comprehensive medical environment dedicated to women's health care.   


Dr. Bessie Moses returned to Baltimore to open her own private gynecological practice in 1924.  In her first few years of private practice, Moses also worked in obstetrics, delivering babies at the Johns Hopkins, Mt. Sinai, and Church Home Hospitals.  She found the work immensely rewarding, but taxing as well.  As Alan Guttmacher, a close associate, explained after her death, "Bess was constitutionally ill-equipped to be an obstetrician; she wasn't rugged enough, either physically or emotionally.  She was so involved in the outcome of a birth that she became constantly anxious about her patients.  She was a wreck after a tough all night vigil as a Lady Stork."4  Ultimately, Dr. Moses decided to give up her obstetrical practice to focus solely on the gynecological needs of her women patients.  This slight career change provided her with the opportunity to examine contraception and its value to female patients in more depth.  Moses, already aware of the efforts of birth control movement figures, such as her friend Margaret Sanger, allied with their cause and advocated contraceptive usage to the women she encountered on an everyday basis in her office.  In addition to her medical practice, Bessie Moses was devoted to counseling women in marriage concerns, which many times focused on contraception and family planning.  She exhibited a deep concern for and personal involvement in her patients, which, although it had proved unsuitable for her obstetics career, made her a great physican for premarital and marriage counseling.  Moses was able to make instant, deep connections with others, and women felt comfortable expressing their deepest concerns with her, never believing once they would be judged or discriminated against.  Patients looked to her for advice and viewed her as a valuable authority, though also as an equal who truly cared for the well-being of each individual and family she spoke with.  Dr. Moses became something of a confidante to the countless numbers of women she treated over her forty year career.  Dr. Guttmacher mirrored these sentiments when he stated, "Few physicians were loved by patients as much as Bess; she gave of herself unstintingly."5  These qualities endeared her to all, including her students, both those at Sarah Newcomb and Wellesley Colleges, and at The Johns Hopkins University, where she was an instructor in obstetrics.  One of the significant aspects of Dr. Moses's successful career was the fact that she sought to make female patients feel comfortable when seeking her advice.  She believed "women should be women first and doctors afterward, just as men should be men first and doctors afterward."  Explaining her philosohpy on her career, Dr. Moses stated, "In treating patients, especially young women with whom I come into contact a great deal, you much have as full a life as possible outside of medicine, so as to impress yourself upon them as a woman like themselves, and not as a gowned medic."6  This ability to connect with her patients ensured the success of Moses's medical practice and her subsequent pursuits in establishing birth control clinics in the area. 


Encouraged by the possibilities offered by the institution of small birth control clinics around the country, doctors at Johns Hopkins decided to open a similar medical office in Baltimore.  Distinguished members of the Hopkins faculty, Dr. Raymond Pearl, Dr. Adolph Meyer, Dr. Donald Hooker, and Dr. J. Whitridge Williams, under whom Moses had interned years before, planned the opening of a birth control clinic with Dr. Bessie Moses as its director, a position she held until 1956.  The Bureau for Contraceptive Advice opened in November 1927, at 1028 North Broadway opposite the Johns Hopkins Hospital.7  With Moses as medical director, women were provided with excellent health care and couseling.  However, public mores against contraception hindered the work the Bureau was able to conduct.  Only married women who were referred in writing by their own physician on the basis of serious health problems, which would be aggravated in the case of pregnancy, were allowed to be treated at the facility.   Nevertheless, the Bureau was able to administer health care to more women than medical facilities had been previously able to provide, and Moses was able to use the clinic as backdrop against which to lobby for the end to laws that restricted women from utilizing contraceptives and reproductive information.


Moses became an active force in the efforts to repeal the Comstock Law and to expand medical instruction in areas of female health.  She encountered countless women who sought contracpetives, even though the acquisition of such materials was illegal.  The visibility of patients returning time and again to hospitals to seek treatment for complications from abortions and other reproductive matters struck a chord with Moses and other physicians who supported the use of contraceptives.  Moses was vocal in rallying against the Comstock Law and spoke against it in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee of the United States Congress in 1932.  In describing just one of the problematic aspects of the law, she stated, "Unless scientific articles and books on contraception are sent freely through the mails to doctors and medical schools, it will be impossible for medical students and physicians to be properly informed concerning the harmless and safe methods of contraception...We resent, as physicians, any limitation on the part of the government to our right to procure any medical articles, books or instrument from any source."8  However, it was not until 1936 that a federal court, not the United States Congress, ruled that the Comstock Law did not apply to birth control.  The Bureau for Contraceptive Advice, meanwhile, was growing in size to accomodate the numbers of eager clientele in search of the care and advice of Dr. Moses.  It had changed its name to the Baltimore Birth Control Clinic in 1932 and extended its services beyond health to also cater to married women's social and economic needs.  Indicative of its development, the clinic, which had initially been run solely by Moses and one other woman, who served as both a nurse and secretary, now had expanded to a staff of nine clinicians.  In order to illustrate the benefits of birth control to the medical community, the government, and the general public, Dr. Moses took it upon herself to conduct an analysis of the first five years of the clinic's operation.  This study, published in 1936, was titled Contraception as a Therapeutic Measure, and included information about the experiences and treatments of 1,000 patients of the clinic in order to ascertain the value of such an establishment.  It was an important measure to gain support for the Bureau and encourage futher growth and the proliferation of subsequent clinics.


 In 1937, Moses was instrumental in the establishment of birth control clinics akin to the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice in other towns in Maryland, such as Hagerstown and Ellicott City.  In addition, she helped start a clinic in the Johns Hopkins obstetrical dispensary, a prime location that would enable physicians to reach out to more women.  Believing women's health care should be available to all women, regardless of social or economic status, Dr. Bessie Moses established a clinic for African American patients, the Northwest Maternal Health Center, which was the first all black clinic in the United States, in 1938.9  This was a very significant decision on the part of Moses because the majority of clinics were staffed by all white doctors and technicians, a feature that discouraged many African Americans from seeking medical care at such places.  However, the clinic created by Moses, who also served as its medical director, was staffed by African American physicians, whom she trained herself.  In addition, its Board of Directors was composed of prominent black community members. This clinic, therefore, was able to provide better access to health care for more women than had previous facilities.   In 1938, the Baltimore clinic became a member of the national Birth Control Federation of America, which had been founded in 1923.  In 1940, the Maryland League for Planned Parenthood had been founded, and Dr. Moses was one of a number of physicians that traveled around to encourage the spread of birth control clinics in towns and cities across the state in order to reach women from all areas who were in need of health and reproductive care.  By 1942, the Baltimore clinic had changed its name to Planned Parenthood, a move echoed around the country by fellow clinics.  Dr. Moses also decided to further expand the efforts of her Planned Parenthood clinic by opening a fertility clinic in 1946.10  Her remarkable work with the birth control clinics in Maryland, many of which had been established before the Maryland League had even begun operation, are testament to the utter devotion and care to women's needs with which Dr. Moses led her career and life.


Throughout her long, impressive career, Dr. Bessie Moses was the recipient of numerous awards and honors and was a member of many presitigious organizations, which include: Phi Beta Kappa, The Johns Hopkins University, 1922; membership in Alpha Omega Alpha, The Johns Hopkins University's honorary medical society, 1922; first woman recipient of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation Award in Planned Parenthood, along with Margaret Sanger, 1950; Citation for "distinguished scientific achievement," Goucher College, 1954; active medical director emeritus of the Bureau for Contraceptive Advice, 1956; served on medical and lay boards of the Baltimore Planned Parenthood Association; president of the Johns Hopkins Women's Medical Alumae Association; and honored by the Federation of Jewish Women's Organizations of Maryland for her work.11  Dr. Moses continued working at her private practice up until the week she died.  After struggling with breast cancer for an extended period of time, Dr. Bessie Moses passed away on March 25, 1965.  It was the same year that the Supreme Court ruled that state laws which prohibited couples from using birth control devices were illegal, a step Moses would have cheered after her lifelong battle against restrictions on contraceptives.  Dr. Alan Guttmacher expressed his sadness over her death and gratitude for her work when he stated, "She loved children, friends, travel, literature, art--she loved life.  She left life reluctantly--but she left it bravely.  Baltimore and the American Planned Parenthood movement lost a great lady and an exceptional leader."12  Moses was a pioneer in opening new avenues of care and choice for women at a time when such ideas were adamantly discouraged by many segments of society.  A courageous and revered woman, Dr. Bessie Moses continues to shape women's health through those touched by her life and example.                           


Endnotes:

1.  Stegman, Carolyn B. Women of Achievement in Maryland History (Maryland: Anaconda Press, 2002) 209.   return to text

2.  Guttmacher, Alan F. "In Memoriam: Dr. Bessie L. Moses, 1893-1965," The Planner, October 1965.   return to text

3.  Kobre, Sidney. "Dr. Bessie Moses Believes Prejudice Against Women in Medicine is Less," Baltimore Home News, 4 January, 1939.   return to text

4.  Guttmacher.   return to text

5.  Ibid.   return to text

6.  "'Brilliant Record' Wins Dr. Bessie Moses Award," The Evening Sun, 25 October 1950.   return to text

7.  "Dr. Bessie Moses Dies at Age 71," The Baltimore Sun, 26 March 1965.   return to text

8.   Stegman, 210.   return to text

9.  "Planned Parenthood Work Brings Award to Dr. Moses," The Baltimore Sun, 30 September 1950.   return to text

10.  "Planned Parenthood Collection," University of Baltimore, Langsdale Library Special Collections, 2005.   http://archives.ubalt.edu/pp/intro.htm.   return to text

11.  "Dr. Bessie Moses Dies at Age 71," The Baltimore Sun, 26 March 1965.   return to text

12.  Guttmacher.  return to text

 

Biography written by 2005 summer intern Lauren Morton

Return to Bessie Moses's Introductory Page



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