Women in medicine

A.T. Still’s first osteopathic medical school class included 6 women: We talked to some of their descendants

For National Women Physicians Day (Feb. 3), The DO explores the legacy of the profession’s pioneer women.


A.T. Still, DO, MD, founded the American School of Osteopathy in Kirksville, Missouri, through a Missouri state grant in 1892. The first class included six women during a time when few women received any formal education. Despite the disparity at the time, it was important to Dr. Still that women be included in the class, as he recognized the intrinsic value they brought to medicine. Through his teaching thereafter, women played a critical role in the start of the osteopathic medical profession.

In honor of National Women Physicians Day (Feb. 3), The DO is exploring the legacy of the osteopathic profession’s pioneer women.

I had the opportunity to talk with John Drabing, DO, a close friend of the family of Jeanette “Nettie” Bolles, DO, a member of the first ASO class.

I also spoke with Patrick Laughlin, DO, and Susan (Susie) Laughlin, the grandchildren of Blanche Laughlin, DO, another member of the first class, who was also Dr. Still’s daughter.

In conducting my interviews, it became clear to me that women have made great strides in the health care field over the past 100 years, and their role in advancing patient care only continues to grow. More women than ever are choosing to become DOs, with an 18% increase in the proportion of female DOs in active practice over the past decade, according to the AOA’s OMP Report. According to a 2021 report from AACOM, 54% of first-year osteopathic medical school matriculants for the 2021-22 academic year were female.

Happy National Women Physicians Day!

The first graduating class of osteopathy is pictured here.

Jeanette “Nettie” Bolles, DO

Jeanette “Nettie” Bolles, DO, was one of five women to graduate from the first class of the American School of Osteopathy. She opened a private practice with her daughter, Esther Bolles, DO, in Denver. For a brief period of time, Dr. Nettie Bolles also operated a school of osteopathy that was adjacent to the private practice. In 1927, Dr. Bolles stopped practicing medicine, and her daughter married C. Robert Starks. Thereafter, he took over the practice once he and Esther started having children. Later on in her life, Dr. Esther Bolles worked as a secretary for the Board of Basic Sciences, which developed the board exams doctors took in those days to become licensed physicians in Colorado.

Dr. John Drabing, a family friend of the Bolles family, shares some insight into the Bolles’ history.

How did it transpire that Dr. Esther Bolles stopped practicing medicine after 1927?

Dr. John Drabing: Esther started having children and, at that time, it made more sense for her husband, C. Robert Starks, DO, to take over the practice while she raised the children. Dr. Nettie Bolles also helped her daughter with the child-rearing duties. Dr. Starks had my mother helping him as a receptionist in the front office of his practice beginning in 1943 and Esther did not work then.

What was Esther’s role as the secretary of the Basic Sciences Board for the state of Colorado?

Dr. Drabing: She made up the science questions that were part of the board exams. She also graded the test questions. My mother helped her prepare the exams by printing out the questions and administering exams to students. They worked closely together to prepare exams for the upcoming medical students in Colorado.

As a fellow doctor yourself, what has given you the most satisfaction in your medical profession?

Dr. Drabing: As an orthopedic surgeon, I enjoyed helping my patients improve their quality of life. I practiced osteopathic manipulative medicine on my patients post-operatively and used a variety of direct and indirect techniques. These days, orthopedic physicians often don’t even see the patients for all their post-operative visits. I think a physician should be present to monitor the results of the surgery they performed.

Blanche Laughlin, DO

Dr. Blanche Laughlin went on to marry George Mark Laughlin, DO, and he established the Laughlin Hospital, where she became a permanent resident after she suffered from a stroke.

Patrick Laughlin, DO, and Susan (Susie) Laughlin, the grandchildren of Blanche Laughlin, DO, share insights about her life and their own medical career paths below.

Did Dr. Blanche Laughlin practice medicine after she graduated with her degree?

Dr. Patrick Laughlin: Blanche completed her studies, and raised her two children, one of whom was my dad. His name is George Andrew Laughlin, and he founded the Laughlin Hospital in Kirksville, Missouri, where I worked as an orderly when I was young. During my childhood, I didn’t really speak to Blanche much, since she had suffered a stroke. She had a room in the hospital where she received twenty-four-hour care.

Susie Laughlin: She was involved in several social organizations, including the Sojourner’s Club in Kirksville. She did a lot of the planning of social events for my grandfather.

Did either of you also choose a medical career path?

Dr. Patrick Laughlin: I went into emergency medicine and worked for several years in Michigan before moving to Cascade, Idaho. The hospital was mainly for tourists, and it had a five-bed ER, so I would do clinic during the day and be on call at night. This schedule was one week on and one week off. During my spare time, I would go rafting, backpacking and fishing. I retired early from medicine because the long hours in the ER and being on call were grueling.

Susie: My mom really wanted me to go into osteopathic medicine, but at the time, I didn’t think that I would be able to have the family life I wanted as a physician. So, I decided to pursue a career in nursing and attended a night program at St. Louis University and received my nursing degree. I worked at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in St. Louis and really enjoyed what I was doing. I was involved in nursing for 15 years.

What made you leave nursing after 15 years?

Susie: My children encouraged me to enter law school. I became an attorney for a federal appellate court working on social security disability cases for the last 20 years. Now looking back at my professional career, I wish I had stayed in nursing and maybe furthered my education by becoming a nurse practitioner.

If there is one piece of advice you could give to young doctors, what would it be?

Dr. Patrick Laughlin: The history and physical exam is very important when evaluating a patient. Ninety percent of the patient’s condition can be diagnosed just by taking a good history. Get to know your patients – they are not only a body that needs to be fixed. Listen to their stories; often, there are clues to their medical history there. Let your head and your hands guide you.

Susie: Women physicians have a lot to offer their patients. It’s so important to maintain a good bedside manner and respect your patients and staff. I tried to care for my patients like they were members of my own family. When I would take care of patients, I would often think of how I would feel if I was a mother bringing my child to the hospital. Also, keep a positive attitude. People would ask me about working at Shriner’s and how it was a depressing place to be. I chose to look at it differently and felt that caring for the patients was an uplifting experience. What some of the kids accomplished when faced with such adversity was amazing and I got to see the tenacity of the human spirit every day.


  1. Paul Claassen, D.O. KCCOM 1974

    more women are definitely needed in medicine. i believe they offer a different insight into handling patients and i appreciated the women we had as classmates in school.

  2. Michael E Fitzgerald, CAE

    If you dig a little deeper into osteopathic medicine’s history, you should find that the osteopathic medical college that Jeanette “Nettie” Hubbard Bolles, DO, and her husband established in Denver was originally named the Western Institute of Osteopathy. It was later renamed the Bolles Institute of Osteopathy and then the Colorado College of Osteopathy. It operated from 1897 under 1904, when it was absorbed into the American School of Osteopathy (ASO) in Kirksville, Missouri. Dr Bolles served as the college’s president, while her husband served as the dean.

    Dr Bolles’ other accomplishments include serving as a professor of anatomy at ASO, serving as the first editor and publisher of ASO’s “Journal of Osteopathy,” being the first president of what is now the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, and being the first woman nominated to run for the presidency of the American Osteopathic Association (ASO).

    Although Dr Bolles was not elected president of the AOA, her son-in-law, C. Robert Starks, DO, was. Dr Starks served as the AOA’s president from 1944 to 1946.

    As for Blanche Laughlin, DO, and her husband, George M. Laughlin, DO, they were disappointed when the Still family lost control of ASO after the death of Andrew Taylor Still, MD, DO, in 1917. In response, Dr George Laughlin established the Andrew Taylor Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery in Kirksville, which was ultimately consolidated with ASO in 1926.

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