After entering the University of Pennsylvania's premedical course in 1922, it took Katherine Sturgis nearly twenty years to complete her medical education. By the end of her career, Dr. Sturgis was considered a pioneer in pulmonary research, with approximately one hundred publications to her credit including important work on the correlation between smoking and lung cancer.
Born Katharine Rosenbaum in Philadelphia in 1903, she grew up in a traditional household with a father who believed that "a woman's place was in the home." Dr. Sturgis later recalled that she was extremely interested in medicine even as a teenager, but her father discouraged her college education, warning her that if she had a college degree and married a poor man, she wouldn't even be able to make a dress for herself. With characteristic determination, she spent the next two weeks sewing a dress (despite her distaste for sewing) simply to prove she could take care of herself no matter whom she married. When she finished her dress and wore it to breakfast one morning, her father relented on the matter of her education and she eventually enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1922. Instead of finishing her premedical studies, however, she eloped with a Penn graduate, rebelling against her family. Her parents found out about it when a local newspaper article appeared with the headline, "Golden-Haired Coed Elopes to Elkton."
For the next decade, Rosenbaum raised a family. To take care of her two small children when her husband was unemployed she worked as a secretary. In 1932, she began working for Dr. Isidor Ravdin, a well-known surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania. The experience rekindled her interest in medicine. Around the same time, her husband contracted tuberculosis. While he was recovering in a sanatorium, he fell in love with another patient and he and Rosenbaum were soon divorced. Rosenbaum went back to school and completed her premedical training at the Pennsylvania State University in 1935. She began studying for her doctor of medicine degree at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania later that same year. Her return to medicine was slowed by many challenges. She contracted tuberculosis, was forced to leave medical school, and struggled both physically and financially for the next three years. Finally, in 1942, she earned her medical degree, almost two decades after leaving home to become a doctor.
After a year's internship at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, Dr. Rosenbaum went to the Herman Keifer Hospital to complete a residency in diseases of the chest, paying particular attention to tuberculosis. She felt she had regained her confidence while at Herman Keifer, even though she wasn't asked to stay on after her residency. Instead, she returned to Philadelphia to pursue a better opportunity, and took a job directing a mass chest x-ray survey there.
The experience was extraordinarily productive for her. Not only was she able to work with a number of top physicians studying a disease with which she was very familiar, she was also able to study the relationship between diabetes and tuberculosis, lung cancer and smoking and, most importantly, learn through clinical trials that regular screenings were not sufficient to stop the spread of tuberculosis. That finding provoked a strong interest in what was then "a very unpopular subject"preventive medicine. Even at the end of her career, Rosenbaum felt the situation had not changed as much as she would have liked.
The last several decades of Katharine Rosenbaum's career were a remarkable flurry of clinical research and teaching. She held a series of positions at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, including chair of the Preventative Medicine Department. She also taught at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School in Medicine from 1947 until 1963, and in 1962 she married for the third time, taking the name Sturgis. After earning a master of public health degree at Johns Hopkins University, she worked at the Veteran's Administration, the Landis State Hospital, the National Cancer Institute, and the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center at the Pennsylvania State University. She also worked at several Philadelphia-area hospitals, including Philadelphia General and the Jefferson Medical College Hospital, and revived the struggling Archives of Environmental Health, a publication of the American Medical Association.
Dr. Sturgis was keenly aware that her professional status and behavior reflected on all women in medicine, and did not want to do anything that would make it more difficult for other women to follow in her footsteps. It is clear that she more than made up for lost time in her profession, publishing widely, teaching constantly, continuing her clinical research, collecting dozens of awards, and attending to patients at several institutions.