Lidia Gertrudis Sogandares (1908–1971)

Lidia Gertrudis Sogandares was the first Latin American woman to be accepted into the University of Arkansas School of Medicine (now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences—UAMS). A pioneer in medicine, she was the first woman to become a physician in Panama and Central America. Sogandares became renowned in the medical fields of obstetrics and gynecology.

Lidia Sogandares was born on October 17, 1908, on the island of Taboga in the Gulf of Panama. She grew up in a large family with four brothers and a younger sister. During her childhood, her father went to work for the National Navigation Company in Panama and later moved his family to Panama City.

She thrived in the new environment. In 1920, Sogandares entered the National Institute of Panama. In 1926, she garnered wide public acclaim by graduating first in her class. Since women had only recently been allowed to enroll in the National Institute, it was an achievement of national significance. She exhibited exceptional aptitude for the sciences and declared her intent to study medicine. Her scholasticism and educational goals impressed representatives of the Inter American Congress of Women and the Pan American Union. In 1928, Sogandares was awarded a foreign scholarship offered by Saint Theresa College of Winona, where she completed her pre-med studies.

With the support of the Pan American Union, Sogandares began applying for enrollment in American medical programs. On June 24, 1930, Dean Frank Vinsonhaler received a letter from Enoch Adames V, the Consul General of Panama, in support of Sogandares’s application to the medical program at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. In that letter, Adames remarked on her academic excellence and her ardent goal of becoming the first Panamanian woman to study medicine. Sogandares arrived at the university in 1930 amid some media attention. The school had record enrollment for that year (185 students and 68 faculty), and Arkansas newspapers noted that even a young woman from Panama City would be attending the university.

In between semesters, she volunteered with several medical institutions, including: the Santo Tomas Hospital, the Panamanian Red Cross, and the Gorgas Memorial Laboratory. In 1934, Sogandares graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. She completed her residency at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she decided to specialize in the fields of obstetrics and gynecology.

Sogandares returned to Panama in 1935 and took a position in the maternity ward at the Santo Tomas Hospital. She advanced to deputy chief and then head of the Maternity Section of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1937, she returned to Arkansas to visit the medical school and was heralded by state newspapers as the first female doctor in Panama. The University of Arkansas School of Medicine was widely regarded as having had a significant role in her success, and her example inspired many young women to enter the medical profession. In 1959, on the twenty-five-year anniversary of having graduated from the medical program, Sogandares was decorated by the Panamanian national government with the Vasco Nunez de Balboa Order in recognition of her remarkable career.

Sogandares was a co-founder and first female member of the Panamanian Academy of Medicine and Surgery; a co-founder and first president of the Panamanian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and a member of the Pan-American Alliance of Medical Women, the Isthmian Medical Association of the Canal Zone, and the Women Medical Association.

On March 21, 1971, Sogandares died unexpectedly of cerebral thrombosis.

For additional information:
de Calvo, Esther Neiru. “Lidia G. Sogandares (1908–1971).” Tierra y dos Mareo 11, no. 61 (March–April 1972).

Frank Vinsonhaler Papers. Office Files. Box 2. Historical Research Center. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Lidia G. Sogandares Biographical File. Historical Research Center. University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Library, Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Panama’s First Woman Doctor Honored.” Arkansas Catholic, January 6, 1950, p. 5.

Geoffery L. Stark
Historical Research Center
University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

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