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Erika Janik

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

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Medical History

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.” 

 

 

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.

Christmas Comes Early: My Advance Copies Have Arrived

My husband lifted two boxes inside the front door when he came from work on Friday. “Something for you,” he said. My mom had warned that she’d sent presents and not to open them so I paid little attention to the boxes and left them sitting by the door. Until the next morning when I happened to glance at the return address, fully expecting to see my mom’s name but instead saw: Beacon.

My books!!

The official publication date isn’t until January 7 but here’s some visual proof that this thing is real. At this time last year, I was tearing my hair out finishing the draft, rewriting, deleting, questioning everything, undoing that previous deletion, writing, deleting, repeat. Repeat.

This year is much better.

Books

New Book! Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

Self promotion is not something at which I excel. When my first book came out in 2007 (Odd Wisconsin), some of my friends only learned I was even writing a book when I invited them to my book launch at Barnes and Noble. Epic writer fail.

I’m much better now.

Marketplace

I have a new book coming out! In January! And even though you have to wait just a little bit longer to get your hands on it, some of the first reviews are starting to come in, including this gem from Publishers Weekly:

Janik (Apple: A Global History), series producer for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life, offers a particular perspective on 19th-century medicine with this survey of “irregular” treatments that Americans embraced as they turned away from standard medicine. Little changed for two centuries, standard medicine’s “heroic” and often deadly offerings were eschewed for practices like heat and herb therapy, hydrotherapy, phrenology, and homeopathy. Janik reveals the significant role women played in the development of these treatments and spread of do-it-yourself medical books, almanacs, and family recipes for healing salves, prophylactics, and popular herbal remedies. Americans loved anything that “gave them the power to treat themselves,” Janik notes—and 19th-century alternative systems did just that. Bottles of ready-to-use homeopathic remedies came in home kits, and Lydia Pinkham’s medicinal brews not only brought neighbors flocking to her door in the 1870s, but her secret vegetable compound is still on the market in at least two variations. Janik argues that “complementary” and “alternative” therapies are just a 20th-century update of irregular medicine—and recognition by Congress, the Mayo Clinic, and major universities proves “the willingness of regular medicine to consider or at least tolerate the merits of their competitors, an almost unimaginable idea less than a century ago.” She’s delivered a must-read for medical history buffs, whether mainstream or maverick.

 

A “must read?” How awesome is that?

In the dark depths of researching and writing, it can be hard to stay mindful of the big picture. Your inner critic (mine is really, really mean and just never shuts up) can’t see beyond the clunky sentence that’s far from poetry or the argument that could be so much stronger if only… if only you had made a different choice. Or were smarter. Or had any talent at all. There’s so many of those. But you have to keep going and believing in your project despite what your inner critic says. She does keep you humble but then when the book finally comes out, it’s time for that critic to be quiet and celebrate a bit.

 

A [Museum] Walk Through Medicine’s Past

Let me tell you about a wonderful place.

I spent the month of May abroad, touring – much of it on foot – in Ireland, Wales, and England. One of my best mornings was spent in London at the free museum and library of the Wellcome Trust (my history dorky-ness reigns unimpeded through work AND vacation times). I first discovered it online while doing research for my next book on the history of 19th century alternative health. The center is an amazing resource for understanding the history of medicine and science, and the connections between medicine, life, and art. Intriguing, right?

Even better for my little Wisconsin history heart, the foundation for the library came from the collections of Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical salesman Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Wellcome ran a successful pharmaceutical business in London but devoted much of his time and resources to collecting books and objects related to medicine, health, alchemy, and even witchcraft from around the world.

Here’s three cool things I saw:

2013-05-29 11.11.09

1. Prosthetic limbs through time.

Prosthetic body parts have been used since at least the time of the Greeks and probably earlier (the Greeks left what is likely the first recorded use). None of these are quite that old but can you imagine wearing one of these? Near these limbs was a box of glass eyes.

2013-05-29 11.10.40

2. Phrenological Skull

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, phrenologists argued that the shape and size of various parts of the brain – these parts were known as organs – determined your personality. Your skull was supposedly a “faithful” cast of the brain encased within so rather than perform some risky operation to take a look at your brain, phrenologists could simply feel and measure the bumps on your head. Phrenology was very controversial in the medical community – and even among phrenologists themselves as this skull demonstrates. One half shows the organs as described by phrenology’s founder, Franz Joseph Gall, while the other half shows those of Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim.

2013-05-29 11.07.57

 

3. Charles Darwin’s Walking Stick

These are two of Darwin’s walking sticks, both intricately carved, one from ivory and one from whalebone. Darwin was a walker – he claimed to get many of his best ideas while walking. As a fervent walker myself, I loved to know that the clicking sound of Darwin’s walking stick hitting the ground became something of his calling card and signature sound.

 

 

 

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