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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

Month

March 2014

Pioneering Women in American Medicine

“Every woman is born a doctor… [while] men have to study to become one,” declared American educatorElla Flagg Young in the mid-19th century. Looking around much of the country, it certainly must have seemed that way.

Long before marketers invented “Dr. Mom,” women had served as nurse, doctor, and pharmacist to their family and friends. Doctoring a family required a great deal of knowledge and skill, which often passed down, woman to woman, through families for generations. Even so, mainstream medicine generally barred women from pursuing medical careers until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Those women that did see doctors rarely received adequate treatment. Many doctors refused to physically examine women for fear of offending their modesty. Others dismissed women’s illnesses, contending that reproduction made women irrational and emotional. As a result, women often found themselves suffering from a dangerous or inappropriate remedy—or no treatment at all—without the benefit of a thorough analysis.

Despite these limitations—or maybe because of them—many women did break through the discrimination and gender assumptions to pursue a career in health, particularly women’s health. Alternative medicine, then known as irregular medicine, welcomed women as both patients and practitioners. The first generation of female doctors practiced homeopathy, water cure, phrenology, and osteopathy, among other therapies. Medicine was second only to teaching in attracting professional women in the 19th century.

Here a few of those pioneering women you should know:

 

 Mary Gove Nichols, The Library Company

In the 1830s, Mary Gove Nichols made a name for herself lecturing and teaching on the shocking topics of women’s health. She championed the benefits of cold water, fresh air, vegetarianism, and regular exercise. She urged women to take charge of their own health as much as possible and lauded women as natural caregivers with their inherent thoughtfulness and gentler dispositions. Nichols never attended medical school (the same could be said of most 19th century doctors, male or female, regular or irregular) but became a trusted healing expert through her popular lectures, publications, and medical practice.

 

Lydia Folger, National Library of Medicine

 

 

Lydia Folger became the first American woman to receive a medical degree in the United States (Elizabeth Blackwell was born in England). Graduating in 1850, Folger hit another first by becoming the nation’s first female professor of medicine at Central Medical College in New York. She practiced phrenology, the science of reading character on the skull, anatomy, and hygiene. Her medical practice in New York City specialized on the health of women and children.

 

Harriet Judd Sartain, Drexel University College of Medicine

  

Harriet Judd Sartain operated one of the most successful medical practices in 1850s Philadelphia. Sartain practiced homeopathy and used her powerful position in her community to fight for women’s right to practice medicine. She lobbied for coeducation and formed a medical club for women. Sartain became a national figure in 1871 when she became one of the first women to join the American Institute of Homeopathy, the field’s national professional association.

 

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Wikipedia

 

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Elizabeth Cady Stanton weren’t doctors but few championed the cause of women more vocally. In 1867, the 23-year-old Phelps decried the misery of the American woman burdened with housework or leisured idleness. She suggested a range of jobs for women to pursue but saved her highest praise for medicine as the most “noble” career. Phelps advocated for women in medicine repeatedly in essays, letters, and novels. Her enthusiasm for homeopathy was so great that she even named her dog after the field’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann.

 

 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Library of Congress

Stanton, too, saw freedom and purpose for women in medicine. After witnessing her brother-in-law’s recovery from heat disease under the care of a homeopath, Stanton purchased her own homeopathy kit and began doctoring her family and friends. “I have seen wonders in Homeopathy,” she reported to her cousin, and “I intend to commence life on Homeopathic principles.” She nursed her children through malaria, mumps, and whooping cough. She even treated herself during childbirth in 1852. Homeopathy felt like nothing less than liberation for Stanton. “Dear me, how much cruel bondage of mind and suffering of body poor women will escape,” wrote Stanton to her friend Lucretia Mott, “when she takes the liberty of being her own physician of both body and soul.” 

 

 

Personal Ads from the Past

Nineteenth century singles hungered for love just as much as they do now. Personal ads – sometimes known as “lonely hearts” ads – flourished in Britain in the late 17th century when an entrepreneurial pamphleteer realized that love would likely sell just as any other commodity. American editors, too, seized on the possibilities of love, advertised.

Slate’s history blog Vault recently posted a selection of vegetarian personal ads from The Water-Cure Journal, the primary voice of the hydropathy, or water cure, movement, one of the most popular 19th century irregular healing systems. Hydropaths believed in the healing power of cold, pure water, and prescribed an intense regimen of bathing, showering, soaking, wrapping, and drinking (of water, of course) to heal disease. Patients received treatment either through a stay at a residential water cure or by following the instructions in any number of DIY water cure manuals.

Americans of all kinds were drawn to take the healing waters, though most were of a reforming bent. Hydropathy was often only one of a panoply of reforms and causes its followers championed. And they looked for the same in a mate.

WaterCurebgad

Personal ads under the heading “Matrimony” appeared in many back pages of The Water-Cure Journal. 

Jennie, a resident of the country, is twenty-four years of age, 5 feet 2 Inches in height, has dark hair and eyes, rather dark complexion. Is a thorough reformer, in every sense of the word ; detests tea and coffee, and will never marry a man who uses tobacco. Is a firm believer in Hydropathy, and practices as well as preaches it. (July 1855)

Jennie wasn’t alone in her distaste for stimulating hot beverages. Many followers of irregular healing, including hydropaths and homeopaths, believed that coffee and tea interfered with healing and in some cases, might even make you sicker.

Gertrude was quite the catch:

Am 28 years of age, neither handsome or a “singing angel;” but understand the music of the pudding-slice. Am in no hurry about marrying; but think I should like to find my partner as soon as 31. Am 5 feet 4 inches in height, and must be mated phrenologically and spiritually, or not at all. Should wish one who could do without tea, coffee, pork, beef, mutton, and feather-beds; a practical anti-slavery man, anti-tobacco, and I care not if anti-razor – in short, one who acts upon principle rather than policy. Age anywhere between my own and 40. (March 1855)

Phrenology’s appearance in Gertrude’s ad is far from surprising. The journal’s publisher, Fowler and Wells, were well known advocates and practitioners of phrenology and also published the main phrenological journal. Phrenology posited that character could be scientifically read on the bumps of your head. Brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler believed that the answers to nearly all life’s questions could be found in phrenology, from career paths to marriage prospects. Lorenzo had himself determined the suitability of his own wife Lydia Folger through an early courtship head reading.

Like Jennie, Gertrude, too, prefers a man who doesn’t drink tea or coffee, though I’m not sure what she has against feather-beds. It may suggest a type of luxury thought immoral to the pious reforming type.

She’s also willing to date a man with a beard – “I care not if anti-razor.” Beards had not yet reached the hairy, be-mutton-chopped heights of the Civil War. For much of early American history, a beard marked a man as an unconventional rebel or outsider. Though facial hair was generally unpopular, Gertrude was willing to look past it for love.

 

 

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