Pioneering Med School Alumnae Reflect on Their Time at Jefferson

In 1965, Drs. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki, Amilu Stewart and Merle Edelstein were among the first women to graduate from the medical school.
Members of the class of 1965
Eight women graduated from the historic Sidney Kimmel Medical College (then Jefferson Medical College) Class of 1965, the first graduating class to include women.

Women make up the majority of medical students today, but back in the mid-’60s, that number only stood at 6%.

With Commencement season underway, we look back on the pioneering Sidney Kimmel Medical College (then Jefferson Medical College) Class of 1965, the first graduating class to include women. In 1961, women enrolled in the medical school; eight women graduated, and a ninth student transferred.

We caught up with three women from the historic Class of 1965: Dr. Amilu Stewart, surgery; Dr. Merle Edelstein, psychiatry and psychoanalysis; and Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki, family medicine. As they reflected on their groundbreaking time at the University, they shared one common sentiment—Jefferson was a truly positive and memorable experience.

Yearbook pictures from the class of 1965
Seen in their yearbook photos, Drs. Amilu Stewart, Merle Edelstein and Nancy Szwec Czarnecki graduated in 1965. Back then, only 6% of students enrolled in U.S. med schools were women.

What made you interested in pursuing a career in medicine? Did your background and upbringing make an impact on this decision?
Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki: I grew up in Clifton Heights, Pa. I started my freshman year of college at Temple University and studied medical technology. I didn’t want to be a nurse and felt that medical technology wasn’t challenging enough for me, so I switched my major to biology.

Dr. Amilu Stewart: I grew up in Pueblo, Colo. My grandmother was my role model, and her advice was, “Ami, you can do whatever you want to do. Don’t let anybody stand in your way.” I knew since I was a junior in high school that I wanted to be a doctor. My high school adviser told me, “Girls don’t do that. They become teachers or secretaries.” My husband was accepted to Jefferson, which led us to Philadelphia.

Dr. Merle Edelstein: I was born and raised in Philadelphia. My parents instilled in me at an early age that there were no limits to what I could do, regardless of gender. Education was an important part of my upbringing. During college, I loved physical anthropology, which led to my interest in medical school.

Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki and Dr. Amilu Stewart at their commencement
Drs. Amilu Stewart and Nancy Szwec Czarnecki at their 1965 Commencement.

Considering this was a male-dominated field in the 1960s, do you recall how you decided to apply to medical school? Were your friends and family supportive?
Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki: When I was a senior in college, my mother read in the paper that Jefferson was accepting women for the first time. I loved science. My friends, most of whom were men also in the science field, said, “Nancy, why don’t you go into medicine?”

Dr. Amilu Stewart: I just had my first child, and when my son was only three weeks old, I told my first husband I was going to take the MCAT. He was totally unsupportive. My father never really accepted it either, but I was determined to make it work.

Dr. Merle Edelstein: My father always thought I should be a doctor. In our family, it made no sense to have limits on what you could do just because you were a woman. Some of my friends were already attending Jefferson, so I had support from everywhere.

Women of the Class of 1965
“My parents instilled in me at an early age that there were no limits to what I could do, regardless of gender,” says Class of 1965 graduate Dr. Merle Edelstein (bottom left).

Do you have any memories or stories you’d like to share from your time at Jefferson?
Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki: The memories of Jefferson are so sweet and very kind. Since we were the first class of women, there weren’t any women’s bathrooms on campus. They did build a ladies’ room lounge for us. In the hospital during rotations, there was no place for the women to stay. It was quite different, and we’ve come a long way.

Dr. Amilu Stewart: I gave birth to my second son during my junior year and could only take a week off or I would lose my spot. Back then, there was no maternity leave or childcare. I relied on babysitters and caregivers who lived nearby. On my study breaks, I’d run home and make sure everything was going well with the babysitter!

Dr. Merle Edelstein: I think Jefferson was wonderful, and I got a fabulous education here. As an alum, I feel happy about the direction Jefferson has taken. They’re at the very top of their game.

The Class of 1965 grads today
Members of the Class of 1965 today: Drs. Amilu Stewart, Merle Edelstein and Nancy Szwec Czarnecki.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in medical education throughout your lifetime?
Dr. Nancy Szwec Czarnecki: Our class had eight women, and now 51% of medical students are women. As far as leadership positions, women are still in the minority, but that will increase as more women enter those typically male-dominated fields.

Dr. Amilu Stewart: For me, one of the biggest changes is to see more women in medicine. I worked mainly with men my whole career.

Dr. Merle Edelstein: In psychiatry residency specifically, some people expect pills to cure everything. Medication can control symptoms, but nothing is life-changing other than someone’s own personal insight. The kind of therapy available today tends to be more symptom-oriented rather than insight-oriented.

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