Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Earliest Women Doctors in the United States?

Post (c) Doris McCraw/writing as Angela Raines

Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health, carved by Edmonia Lewis c. 1871-1872 for Harriot Hunt's grave, from

In studying the women doctors of the 19th century you wonder, where did the idea of women struggling to be accepted start and who were the women whot took up the challenge? A look at early medical societies and education may help.

In 1846 the American Medical Association was formed to bring a higher level of competence from doctors. Prior to the AMAs formation various states’ medical societies fulfilled that purpose. The Massachusetts Medical Society stated it well when it wrote “A person who is engaged in the practice of medicine or surgery in this commonwealth, not being a fellow or licensate of this society, nor a Doctor of Medicine of Harvard University, shall be deemed by the fellows of this society an irregular practitioner, likewise anyone who has been expelled from this society, or who after being permitted to resign his fellowship has been denied his privileges.” As noted, there is no mention of women and in the case of Massachusetts, a graduate of Medicine from Harvard. It wasn’t that women hadn’t attempted to attend medical school. They were simply denied entrance. Things started to change with the admittance of Elizabeth Blackwell to Geneva medical college and her subsequent graduation.

Dr. Blackwell, graduated in 1849 from Geneva Medical College in New York, which made her the first women in the United States to do so. What makes her graduation even more interesting is that Dr. Blackwell at one time found the idea of studying medicine abhorrent. A dear friend, who suffered greatly during her treatments, told Elizabeth that “you are fond of study, have health and leisure; why not study medicine? If I could’ve been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me.” At the time Elizabeth told her it was an impossible suggestion and that she could not stand the sight of a medical book. The idea however began to take root and soon Elizabeth was considering that very thing. She methodically set about finding out all she needed to know to pursue that course of education. Upon finding the costs to attend college would be around $3000 she took a job teaching music at a school in Ashville North Carolina. It was at this school, where the principal, Rev. John Dickinson, was a former medical doctor that she took up a trial study of medicine. When she had accumulated the needed funds she returned to Philadelphia. At this time Philadelphia was considered the major medical learning center. Still Elizabeth was unable to secure admittance to any of the medical schools there. She eventually broadened her search applying to and being accepted at Geneva Medical College after a vote of the student body agreed to admit her. In her autobiography she speaks fondly of classes, the school and the professors, but makes mention of the fact that the women of the town felt she shocked Geneva propriety, that they felt she was either a bad woman, or insane. It after her graduation that she learned her admittance may have been a lark, but she does not give much credence to it being a problem for her.

While Elizabeth Blackwell may have been the first woman to graduate from medical school, she was not the first woman doctor. There were some like Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, who practiced in Massachusetts in the 1830s. Although she is noted as the first woman to apply to Harvard Medical School, as a doctor, she was self-taught, having been denied admittance to that institution. Dr. Hunt began her studies when her sister Sarah became ill. Out of desperation for her sister’s health, Harriot had the English couple, Elizabeth and Richard Mott, take on her sister’s treatment. As she says in her autobiography ‘the doubt, uncertainty, and inefficacy of medical practice had been our portion; and the best physicians had given up an only sister!’ She continued studying with and working beside the Mott’s until Richard’s death and Elizabeth’s removal to New York. From that point on Harriot continued to build her practice, focusing on women and children. Hunt also was involved in social reform, specifically abolition of slavery and women’s rights, attending the 1850 women’s rights convention in Massachusetts. Dr. Hunt also corresponded with Dr. Blackwell on at least one occasion. Again from her biography Dr. Hunt states ‘after my experiences with Harvard College, first the professors, then the students who played the same game with different men, it was truly encouraging to hear that Elizabeth Blackwell had graduated at another college, had been to Europe to perfect herself in her profession, and returned to the New York to commence her practice. My soul rejoiced – I poured out my feelings in a letter, and gave her the right hand of fellowship; it was acknowledged in an answer worthy of the writer.’ Later Hunt was awarded an honorary degree from the Female Medical College of Philadelphia in 1853.

 Justin, “Elizabeth Blackwell. The Entry of Women into Medicine in America: Education and
Obstacles 1847-1910.”

Blackwell, Elizabeth. Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women: Autobiographical Sketches. Longmans, Green, and Company, 1895.

Hunt, Harriot Kesia. Glances and Glimpses: Or, Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life. J. P. Jewett and Company, 1856.

Doris McCraw - writing as Angela Raines 
Author, Speaker, Historian-specializing in
Colorado and Women's History

For a list of Angela Raines Books: Here 

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  1. Brave women, indeed! And thanks for educating us with such a fine article.

    1. You are welcome Jacquie. I feel compelled to share their stories! Doris

  2. What an interesting post, Doris! Really enjoyed it!

  3. Thank you Penny. The stories of these women are a passion of mine. Now you know why Josie ended up a doctor. *smile*. Doris

  4. As always, Doris, I thoroughly enjoyed this read. I'm drawn to anything medical and esp. the history regarding women in medicine since I was a nurse for most of my life. I even have a historical--finished but needs reworking--with a mounted police who can't believe a NYS female has even attempted to practice medicine(she eventually finishes her degree at Geneva). Geneva is 20 minutes from me. So I indeed loved this full of info and so interesting post. Keep them coming.

    1. Thank you Bev. You should get Dr. Blackwell's autobiography. It's a fascinating read, full of so many of her thoughts and her life.

      I must make it to that part of the country and walk the places some of these women walked. I've already done some of that here in Colorado as I write about those women. It gives a sense of space and time, even if it is modern day. Doris