Marie Gillain Boivin was born in Montreuil, France in 1773, and was educated by nuns who ran a hospital at Etampes, a suburb of Paris. When the nunnery was destroyed during the French Revolution, she began studying anatomy and midwifery, on her way to becoming a pioneer in the science of obstetrics, a medical inventor, author, and one of the most important obstetricians of the 19th century, despite being denied admission into medical school because she was a woman.
Marie’s studies were temporarily interrupted when she married Louis Boivin in 1797 at age 24. Sadly, she was widowed just three years later and was left to carry on with a young daughter and very little money. So Marie returned to her studies under noted midwife, Maria Lachapelle, at the Hospice de la Maternité in Paris. She earned her midwife certificate in 1800 and went to practice in Versaille.
But tragedy struck yet again when Marie’s young daughter was killed in an accident. It prompted her to return to Paris, where she went back to work with Lachappelle at the Hospice de la Maternité. Over the next 11 years, Marie became known for her obstetrical skill along with her investigative and diagnostic insight, especially in difficult cases. So much so, the leading surgeon of the time declared she “had an eye at the tip of each finger.”
She ‘was undertaking surgical treatments which in other countries were the prerogative of the men.’
After a quarrel with Lachappelle, reportedly over professional jealousy, Marie resigned from the Hospice de la Maternité and then held positions at a variety of hospitals: co-director of the General Hospital for Seine and Oise in 1814, directed a temporary military hospital in 1815, and later directed the Hospice de la Maternité and the Maison Royale de Santé. The King of Prussia awarded her the Order of Merit in 1814, and in 1827 she received an honorary M.D. from the University of Marburg in Germany, one of the few women so honored at the time.
Marie’s other contributions to the science of obstetrics included her groundbreaking inventions: a pelvimeter that measured the pelvis, and the vaginal speculum, a devise STILL used today that makes most women cringe, but one that enables our gynos to see a vital part of our anatomy that’s hidden from plain view – the cervix – AND gives our docs a way to collect the cervical cells necessary for a Pap smear.
Beyond these innovations, Marie was one of the first medical professionals to use a stethoscope to listen to the fetal heartbeat. She is also credited with discovering the cause of diseases of the placenta and uterus and for identifying reasons for and ways to prevent miscarriages. Additionally, Marie was one of the first surgeons to remove the cervix because of a cancerous growth.
Marie shared her discoveries through a number of well-respected writings. Her first important writing was Art of Obstetrics published in 1812. It was used by both medical students and midwives and translated into several languages. But what was arguably her most important work, was a medical book on diseases of the uterus that was used as a textbook for many years. It was published in 1833, and included many plates and figures, which Marie colored herself.
Despite all she accomplished and contributed, this pioneering Woman You Should Know lived a simple life and chose to work for minimal pay. In 1841, shortly after she retired from practicing as a midwife, she died. Marie was living in poverty at the time of her death.