The first Czech female doctor graduated in Prague 120 years ago

Anna Honzáková

Anna Honzáková was the very first Czech female doctor and gynaecologist, as well as being a women’s rights activist and opponent of abortion. She treated women both rich and poor, providing treatment free of charge to those who couldn’t afford to pay.

Elizabeth Blackwell | Source: Hobart and William Smith Colleges Archives,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Medicine was seen for many years, even centuries, as a difficult profession unsuitable for the “weaker” sex. And in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the shift in public opinion regarding women in medicine took even longer than elsewhere. While Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the world to receive a medical degree, graduated from Geneva Medical College in the USA as early as 1849, and in the following decades female doctors also began working in Britain and France, women in Austria-Hungary could only dream of studying medicine right up until the beginning of the 20th Century.

As one of six children of the progressive physician Jan Honzák, who hailed from the town of Kopidlno in the Hradec Králové Region of the Czech Republic, Anna was interested in medicine from a young age. However, it took many years before she was able to gain access to a proper medical education - the fact that she was a successful graduate of the first girls’ grammar school in Prague only partially helped her.

Looked down upon by her male colleagues

Anna Honzáková in 1902 | Photo: Atelier Jan Langhans,  časopis Ženské listy/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

At the time, student medical exams (which still to this day in the Czech Republic are usually done orally, with a professor asking the student questions) were open for the public to watch, and so Anna always drew a large crowd of classmates when she sat her exams. During the practical part of her final examination, the auditorium was said to be full to bursting.

In the end, however, she overcame all the obstacles standing in her way, and on Monday 17th March 1902, Anna Honzáková became the first woman to receive a medical degree from Prague's Charles-Ferdinand University (the former name of today's Charles University between the 17th Century and 1918). But even though it was a groundbreaking event which drew large crowds of people, only women’s magazines wrote about it.

After graduation, Anna was required to work unpaid in clinical practice for three years. But finding a job was not any easier for her than pursuing her medical studies had been. In the end, in 1905 she decided to set up her own gynaecology practice in the centre of Prague. Women from all social classes flocked to her practice – her patients included stars from the National Theatre and women of industry, as well as poor women, whom she treated free of charge.

Emancipation and enlightenment

Anna Honzáková | Photo: Časopis Eva/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Honzáková was a member of the Minerva organization, which managed a girls’ grammar school. She also worked in the Czech Women’s Club, alongside Františka Plamínková, and in the Committee for Women’s Suffrage. She advocated for responsible family planning, paving the way for enlightenment and education about contraception. However, she was opposed to abortion as a replacement for effective contraception, for which she was heavily criticised by left-wing activists.

In 1939 she had to close her gynaecology practice due to health reasons. She died in Prague on 13th October 1940, just one month shy of her 65th birthday.

Today women make up half of the medical profession and that proportion is constantly changing. In recent years, as many as two-thirds of medical graduates have been women.

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