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The Unknown Gertrude

By Kathleen Waters Sander

She was a poet, patron and member of the Lost Generation—but doctor? Stein's sojourn at the School of Medicine lasted just three and a half years.

With her inimitable style, Gertrude Stein once observed: "I have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made." Of the half of life that "made" her, Stein spent a critical part in Baltimore as a medical student at Johns Hopkins. In 1890s Baltimore, and particularly at Hopkins, she found a combustion of people, ideas and culture that ignited her talents, refocused her ambitions and launched a legendary career.

Today, Gertrude Stein's name is synonymous with modernity, nonconformity, the Lost Generation, Paris between the great world wars. Her life was as complex and enigmatic as the poetry and prose she came to be known for—and the identities she created for herself: author, art collector, expatriate and patron. But doctor? It was one title that evaded her. Of the many women in the past century who have passed through the halls of The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and gone on to achieve fame, Stein stands out for what she did not accomplish in the field of medicine.

Stein's circuitous path to Baltimore in the 1890s to study at the new Hopkins medical school brought her back to the city of her mother and father's families. Her paternal grandparents, Michael and Hannah Stein, were German Jews who had sailed from Bavaria with four young sons—one of them Gertrude's father—into the Port of Baltimore in 1841. Like thousands before them, the Steins had fled Europe in pursuit of the American Dream. They found it in Baltimore, by starting what became one of the most successful clothing manufacturers in the mid-Atlantic region. Within a decade, Stein Brothers bustled with 30 employees in a six-story building on Baltimore Street and by the Civil War was flush with military uniform contracts for Union troops.

The Steins prospered in the lively Jewish community in the eastern part of the city. They settled into the upwardly mobile middle class of antebellum industrial Baltimore. But like many families in the border state of Maryland, the politics of the Civil War fractured the family. While most of the Steins sympathized with the South, Daniel, Gertrude's father, stayed loyal to the Union. In 1864, he took his new wife, Baltimorean Milly Keyser, to live safely above the Mason-Dixon Line, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. It was here that Gertrude was born, on February 3, 1874. "You have to be born somewhere and I was born there," she once quipped.

But she wasn't there for long. The Steins moved on to Vienna and Paris, and they eventually settled into a large house on 10 acres in Oakland, California. Stein entered the School of Medicine in 1897 and studied here for three and a half years. Her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe College, under the tutelage of eminent physician and psychologist William James, prepared her academically for the rigors of Hopkins. Medicine might have seemed an odd career path for someone with a pronounced literary bent, but in the late 19th century, it was the most prestigious and demanding profession a woman of Stein's intellect and curiosity could pursue. And Hopkins was the place for an ambitious female medical student. Started four years before by Baltimore philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Hopkins already had garnered acclaim as the country's first coeducational, graduate-level medical school.

In her first two years, Stein thrived on scientific inquiry and conducted impressive research on the development of the human embryo brain. Fellow students described her as charismatic and confident. She learned to box. She smoked cigars. She tried to break through society's restrictions on women.

Gertrude Stein

Class of 1903
Only two photos exist of Gertrude Stein in medical school; one at the research bench; the second, a retiring figure in the back of the class of 1903.

The city that Stein called home in the 1890s was a clash of opportunities and obstacles: "New Women" and old Southern traditions, opulence and poverty, success and failure. The conflicting images of the American experience, particularly for women, would mold Stein's life—and her writings.

Baltimore's art-collecting Cone sisters, "Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel," exerted a great influence on young Gertrude. With her older brother, Leo, they formed an intimate foursome. Claribel, 10 years older than Gertrude, had graduated from the Baltimore Woman's Medical College and was doing graduate research at Hopkins while Gertrude was a student. The two imposing figures were often seen walking around the new East Baltimore medical campus, huddled together and engaged in demonstrative conversations.

While at Hopkins, Stein became infatuated with a dynamic group of young women medical students—Baltimore activists and graduates of the Seven Sisters colleges. Like Stein, they too were trying to define their career ambitions within a Gilded Age society that valued marriage and domesticity for well-to-do young women. Several, particularly the women involved in the founding of the Hopkins medical school, later became fodder for one of Stein's first novellas, Fernhurst, which fictionalized the ménage à trois among M. Carey Thomas, then dean of Bryn Mawr College, Mamie Gwinn and Alfred Hodder, a longtime friend of Stein's.

By her third year of medical study, as she moved from bench to bedside, Stein's interest in medicine began to wane, a result of increasing wanderlust, a tempestuous love affair with fellow student May Bookstaver and a professed disinterest in clinical rotations—particularly, as she wrote, "the delivering of babies."

Stein's disaffection was clearly reciprocated. One of her Hopkins professors wrote of her medical capabilities: "She could do nothing with her hands, was very untidy and careless in her technique and irritating in her attitude of intellectual superiority." Another faculty member assessed her more succinctly: "Either I am crazy or Miss Stein is."

She left medical school in the middle of her fourth year, after failing most of her classes, but continued her research for another several months. Her failure to graduate greatly disappointed her friends and family. Leo lamented that "the first person in the family to have gone so far should fall back on it." Her friends thought "she had done harm to her sex."

In 1903 she sailed to Europe and on to a literary career. She did not return to the United States for three decades. In an opera libretto that Stein penned late in her life, she wrote that "we cannot retrace our steps." Yet throughout her 40-year literary career, she often did find inspiration from the people and the experiences of her earlier days at Hopkins and in the place she called "Baltimore, sunny Baltimore."