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.” 

 

 

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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.

 

 

An Illustrated History of Alternative Medicine in Early America

Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.

But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease.

Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.

But as industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies remade everything from where people worked to how they lived and got around in the 19th century, many Americans began to question why medical care didn’t seem to be improving, too. Anyone who could offer a remedy that seemed effective, didn’t hurt as much as bleeding, cost less than a trip to a doctor, and even allowed you to treat yourself was bound to be popular. (Even a cursory study of the past reveals that Americans have been staunchly independent and looking for deals for centuries.)

And so, phrenologists read character on the topography of people’s skulls, hydropaths attempted to wash out all disease with cold water, and mesmerists transmitted an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism. And millions of Americans became devotees.

But why would anyone believe these things could work?

Burns Archive

Burns Archive

Read the rest on The Beacon Broadside.

Marketplace of the Marvelous News

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It’s been a busy few weeks bringing the stories of irregular healing and 19th century medicine to the airwaves and print. Some highlights:

I love history books (no surprise) and here are a few I recommend in this “Just Read It” feature.

Salon ran an excerpt from the conclusion while The Atlantic ran an excerpt from the phrenology chapter (a personal favorite).

Loved talking with Simon Moncrieff on Newstalk Ireland from Dublin (if only I could have done the interview in studio).

Doctor Radio with Dr. Ira Breite on Sirius XM was a lot of fun.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a nice Q&A with me at the end of January.

And Madison’s alt-weekly Isthmus ran a profile under the headline “Textual Healing,” which cracked me up. Should I have called the book that instead?

You can hear me talk about the book on The Larry Meiller show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Boston Globe featured the book in their nonfiction book briefs.

 

This week, I’ll be speaking at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on Tuesday, February 11th at 7PM. And on Sunday,  February 16th, I’ll be at one of my favorite places, Arcadia Books in Spring Green, speaking at 2PM. Hope to see you there!

What One Writing Process Looks Like

In talking about my new book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicineeveryone seems to want to know about the writing and research process. Writing a book can seem like some kind of miracle. It can also seem like some tortuously difficult endeavor that is hard to fully comprehend and explain to those who haven’t done it. It’s a little bit of both.

As a historian, the work of writing a book really breaks down into two parts: researching and writing. I take a lot of notes. How many? Here’s my stack of typed notes:

photo (5)

 

 

There’s lots of highlighting by major themes for each chapter:

photo (7)

 

And scribbling of ideas on random slips of papers and folders as I come up with common themes, chapter ideas, questions, possible ways to phrase things:

photo (6)

 

That stack, with all its highlights and scribblings, becomes a book – slowly, painfully slowly – after lots and lots and lots of editing. The first draft often bears little, if any, resemblance to the printed product.  I rewrote every chapter more times than I can even recall. The miraculous part of book writing may be that something coherent even emerges in the end. But it does, if you stick with it.

Empowering Women With Water

Announcing the 1850 birth of his daughter in the pages of the Water-Cure Journal, Thomas Nichols asserted that childbirth could be not only easy but nearly pain free for women. His declaration wasn’t the smug opinion of a man standing idly by while his wife labored for hours in the other room. His wife, in fact, fully agreed with him.

Mary Gove Nichols’s secret was hydropathy, a system of healing that relied on the power of cold, pure water to flush sickness from the body. Mary had suffered the agony of four successive stillbirths before submitting to its rigorous but healthful routine. Coming from anyone else, few Americans would likely believe their claim but Mary was one of the most influential and authoritative advocates of hydropathy in the nation.

Largely self-taught, Mary first made a name for herself in 1838 lecturing — a scandal in and of itself for a woman — on the shocking topics of women’s health and anatomy. Women’s health was a topic rarely, if ever, discussed at the time. Standards of female propriety meant that many women endured their sicknesses in silence to avoid being examined by a man.

Mary made it her mission to educate women….

Read the rest of Mary’s story at Biographile

Meet the New Book: Marketplace of the Marvelous

It’s been a busy week here at Marketplace of the Marvelous world headquarters (aka my treadmill desk in the guest room). My new book hit bookstores last Tuesday. I’ve been giving interviews and had my launch at A Room Of One’s Own in Madison Thursday. And perhaps most exciting of all, a section of the book on phrenology was excerpted in The Atlantic – read it here.

I love sharing this quirky medical history. There’s much more to come so stay tuned.

 

Marketplace

19th Century Health Resolutions for the New Year

Resolutions to be healthy and fit are among the most common this time of year. Only two days in to the new year, we’re all still winning our resolutions (good news!). In honor of my soon to be released book Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine, here are some 19th century tips for living healthy and well:

1. Drink water, the colder the better. Nature’s purest drink was the health beverage of choice for hydropaths, who promoted the benefits of regular bathing, soaking, and imbibing at least eight (and often a lot more – one guy claimed 30 glasses before breakfast!) glasses of cold water a day to wash out disease.

2. Think positive. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby believed that the cause of all disease was wrong thoughts. Replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts led to happiness and health.

3. Go natural. Samuel Thomson was a self-taught American herbalist who believed that nature knew best. He devised his own system of healing known as Thomsonism that relied on remedies made from the plants growing out your backdoor.

4. Move. Outside, if possible. Between drinking water and bathing, hydropathic patients went on long walks in the woods. The fresh air, trees, and other plants made for particularly restorative forms of exercise. On rainy days, patients juggled, danced, or chopped wood – anything to move more.

5. Avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other spirituous substances. Homeopaths believed that certain foods and drinks inhibited healing. The movement’s founder, Samuel Hahnemann, even cautioned against drinking coffee, claiming it could lead to impotence, sterility, and mental and physical “degeneration.” But even Hahnemann couldn’t deny its pleasures, particularly in the morning: “In the first moments or quarters of an hour after waking, everyone who is not living completely in a rude state of nature, has a disagreeable feeling of not thoroughly awakened consciousness, of confusion, of laziness, and want of pliancy in the limbs,” Hahnemann wrote. Coffee “removes this disagreeable situation” and makes drinkers “completely alive” with each sip.

L0025612 R.T. Claridge, Hydropathy, or the cold water cure...

 

My new book is only days away from its release into the world (January 7th!). It’s about health and sickness and how Americans throughout the 19th century struggled and embraced a variety of ways to be well before we knew about things like germs. They even got a few things right.

 

 

 

Favorite History Reads of the Year

Lists of top ten this or that are common in December. In the midst of holiday shopping and feting, we feel compelled to sum it all up before launching in to another year filled with all new items (or variations on a theme) to categorize, list, and rate.

I’m certainly not immune to the ranking and collecting. I eagerly click on just about any list of top books of the year put out by anyone on any topic while keeping my local library system website cued up in another window for easy additions to my library request/hold list. And I certainly love those collected works of Best that come out around this time of year – best food writing, nature and science, short stories, essays.

But I’ve noticed a glaring omission – at least to my eyes. Where’s the Best American History Writing? If anyone is reading, I volunteer to be the series editor.

Here, in no particular order and definitely not comprehensive, are some history stories I enjoyed this past year. It’s an eclectic bunch but then, I’m interested in just about anything if told well.

“The Prodigal Daughter: Writing, History, and Mourning” (New Yorker) by Jill Lepore
A fascinating story that brings together Lepore’s own life story (and particularly that of her mother) with the life of Jane Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s sister. It’s a stunning blend of memoir and history.

“The Earliest Libraries-on-Wheels Looked Way Cooler than Today’s Bookmobiles” (Smithsonian blog)
A fun pictorial look at book mobiles past.

“A Skillful Horsewoman’: A Brief History of Royal Childhoods” (The Atlantic) Olga Khazan
I’m an Anglophile through and through so I loved reading this short history of royal children (sounds miserable)

A Theology of Wild Apples” (Apple Orchard blog)
Having written a book on apples myself and gone to grad school to study colonial America, I could scarcely resist this look at Puritans and wild apples.

Voice Hero: The Inventor of Karaoke Speaks” (The Appendix)
The charming story of the invention of karaoke from the inventor himself.

“Busker Rhymes” (The Pirate Omnibus)
Buskers have been annoying people on public transportation for a long time.

 

Don’t even get me started on history books I loved…

A Wisconsin Chiropractic Tale

After spending several years researching alternative healing methods for my new book, I was surprised to only recently learn the story of chiropractor Clarence Gonstead. Even more so because I’ve driven by the modernist Gonstead clinic in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin, countless times.

Born in South Dakota in 1898, Gonstead grew up on a dairy farm in Primrose, Wisconsin, with an interest in automotive and tractor repair. Stricken with rheumatoid arthritis at 19, the bedridden Gonstead had exhausted nearly all of his medical options when he sought the services of a Madison chiropractor. The treatment worked. Gonstead was soon up and walking. This life changing experience led Gonstead to devote his life to chiropractic – a not uncommon conversion story in the annals of alternative medicine.

Source: Wikichiro

Source: Wikichiro

To save money for school, Gonstead worked as an automotive engineer. In 1923, he graduated from the Palmer School of Chiropractic in Davenport, Iowa (the Palmers had founded chiropractic in the 1890s), and a few years later, set up his own practice in Mt. Horeb.

Gonstead didn’t stick with the Palmer’s original theory. Rather than a vertebral bone causing nerve pressure (and thus disease) as founder D.D. Palmer and his son B.J. believed, Gonstead suggested that the vertebral disc caused nerve pressure. He developed his own method of spinal assessment to locate the spinal impingement, known as a subluxation in chiropractic.

“The principles of the Gonstead Method are the simple principles of chiropractic put to work; how to understand what causes nerve pressure, how to find it on the patient, how to achieve a corrective setting of the offending vertebra, and how to know when the chiropractor’s job is done, and nature’s begins,” explained Gonstead.

Neither D.D. nor B.J. Palmer took kindly to the ideas of others, even other chiropractors, so Gonstead likely received a chilly response to his technique.

Patients, on the other hand, loved Gonstead’s methods and they came from all over the country seeking his care. His clinic, a midcentury modern structure designed by Wisconsin architect John Steinmann, was one of the largest in the world with seating for 106 patients, a lab and research facilities, and seminar rooms. He even built a hotel, the Karakhal Inn, in 1965 to accommodate patients from out of town and other chiropractors seeking to learn his method. Business was so good that a regular limousine service traveled between the Madison airport and the Mt. Horeb clinic. Patients with their own private planes could land at Gonstead’s personal airstrip on the outskirts of town. For many years, the clinic was the largest chiropractic clinic in the world.

Gonstead also had a rather notable home. Herb Fritz, Jr., an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the private home on 55 acres in the late 1940s or early 50s. Unfortunately, the home burned down in 1992.

Gonstead died in 1978 and a nonprofit foundation now runs his clinic. His method has spawned followers and practitioners around the world.