Isabella Herb, First Woman on the Medical Staff

By Sarah Scheinman and Nathalie Wheaton

People often ask the Rush University Medical Center Archives staff who was the “first” — the first female student of Rush Medical College, for example, or maybe the first African-American on the hospital staff. The answers are often more complicated than people would like. And sometimes they are impossible to answer definitively. However, one first we’re sure of is the identity of the first woman on staff at Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago. Presbyterian Hospital, founded in 1883 on this campus, was an early predecessor of Rush University Medical Center.

From 1909 to 1941, Herb was head of the department of anesthesia at Presbyterian Hospital, the first woman to join its medical staff. She also served as the first woman president of the American Association of Anesthetists. In her early career, she practiced as an anesthetist and pathologist in Augustana Hospital in Chicago, working with Lawrence Prince, MD, the major developer of open drop ether and chloroform anesthesia. In 1897, she first published her study surveying 1,000 cases of anesthetics at the hospital, “Observations on One Thousand Consecutive Cases of Anesthesia in the Service of Dr. A. J. Ochsner.

Herb helped develop methods of safe and effective anesthesia including a new type of anesthetic screen to administer ethylene gas. The first use of ethylene gas in obstetrics, 1923, was used during a Cesarean section, as it was found to relieve the pain of childbirth. Herb commented, “It has been found that the judicious administration of ethylene oxygen during labor relieves the pain without retarding the natural processes of childbirth or affecting the mother or baby in any deleterious manner.” (From Presbyterian Hospital’s Bulletin, May 1938.)

She was also a leader in the field of medical education as professor of surgery (anesthesia) at Rush Medical College, advocating stronger anesthesia programs. In her 1921 publication, “Anesthesia in Relation to Medical Schools and Hospitals,” she writes, “instruction in the art and practice of anesthesia is altogether absent from the curriculum of the majority of medical schools, or totally or inadequately dealt with.”

Herb’s research contributions to the fields of pathology and anesthesia are demonstrated in her publications. Her role as an advocate for the profession is also clearly apparent. “Anesthesia is the one field in the practice of medicine in which there is a seemingly indifference and lack of compensation,” she wrote in “The Anesthetic Problem in its Relation to the Hospital.” Herb, pictured here in a 1936 issue of the Presbyterian Hospital Bulletin, retired in 1941 and died of heart disease in 1943.

Sarah Scheinman  is a Dominican University Library Science student who recently completed a semester-long practicum at the Rush University Medical Center Archives. Nathalie Wheaton is assistant archivist at the Rush University Medical Center Archives.

Do you have a question about Rush’s history? Contact the Rush Archives at (312) 942-7214 or or visit us at

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