Thursday, June 29, 2017

Early Female Physicians

Harriet Judd Sartain (1830-1923) is today remembered primarily for her work in homeopathic medicine in Philadelphia, but she was also the first woman with a medical degree to practice in Waterbury, returning here after finishing her education in 1854. She was one of two Connecticut women to earn medical degrees from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1853; the other was Ellen Boyle of Farmington. They were the first women from Connecticut to attend that college and may very well have been the first two women from Connecticut to earn medical degrees. Sixty years later, Judd Sartain was hailed as "the pioneer woman physician of America."

Forest City (SD) Press, 22 July 1914
Courtesy of Chronicling America


 Higher education for women was a radical concept during the 1800s. Equally radical, if not more so, was the idea that a woman could have a successful career as a formally trained physician (or any other professional career, for that matter).

During the late 1840s, a women's rights movement began to sweep the nation. Activists pushed for equal rights and equal opportunities for women. The movement would eventually be put on hold by activists who recognized that the abolition of slavery needed to take priority; a resurgence of the women's rights movement appeared during the 1870s.

The first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849. She was the only female student at Geneva Medical College in New York. A handful of other women were enrolled as students in other medical colleges. The New England Female Medical College was founded in Boston in 1848; the first African American woman to earn a medical degree, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, graduated from the New England college in 1864.

A second women's medical school, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, was founded in Philadelphia in 1850; Harriet Judd and Ellen Boyle graduated from this college in 1853. In 1869, the female students of the school finally obtained permission to attend clinical lectures at the Pennsylvania Hospital, sparking an uproar among male medical students, who jeered and spat at them.

The early female doctors were courageous activists, pushing the boundaries of what was then considered acceptable behavior for women.

Harriet Judd Sartain

Harriet Judd Sartain was born in the southern-most part of Waterbury, which later became Naugatuck, in 1830. The family moved to Michigan in 1843, trying their hand at taming the frontier, but by 1850, the family had returned to Waterbury, where Harriet's father, Henry "Harry" Judd was working in a button factory.

Harriet Judd attended the American Hydropathic Institute in 1851, graduated from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1853, and graduated from the Eclectic Medical Institute of Cincinnati in 1854. She was the first woman from Waterbury to graduate from any college (followed closely by Anna Ward, who graduated from Wesleyan Female College of Ohio in 1854). Judd returned to Waterbury in 1854, launching her career as a doctor.

Judd pursued a medical career for economic independence and "psychological parity." She was fiercely independent and said as much in a letter to Samuel Sartain following his marriage proposal in 1854 (see Anne Taylor Kirschmann, A Vital Force: Women in American Homeopathy, Rutgers University Press, 2004). Sartain was undeterred and the pair were married soon after. The newlyweds settled in Philadelphia in 1855, where Harriet Judd Sartain continued her medical practice.

Judd Sartain was a pioneer for women physicians and for homeopathic medicine. She was the first woman admitted to the Philadelphia Homeopathic County Medical Society and the Pennsylvania State Homeopathic Medical Society, and the third woman to be admitted to the American Institute of Homeopathy. She founded the Women's Homeopathic Medical Club of Pittsburgh in 1883.

Dr. Harriet Judd Sartain
(Drexel University College of Medicine Archives)

The Sartain family were among the elite artists of Philadelphia, associating with Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Eakins, and Mary Cassatt. The various members of the Sartain family were influential painters and printmakers. 

Judd Sartain's sister-in-law, Emily Sartain, held her in high regard, writing in 1888 that she was "one of the most successful physicians in Philadelphia, irrespective of sex," and "was a pioneer among women doctors,—and her personal character is so fine and her scientific acquirements so indisputed, that in the struggle to get women doctors admitted in a different state, county and U.S. Societies, her name was always one selected to make an Entering wedge." (Kirsten Swinth, "Emily Sartain and Harriet Judd Sartain, M.D.: Creating a Community of Women Professionals," in Philadelphia's Cultural Landscape: The Sartain Family Legacy, Temple University Press, 2000).

Martha M. Dunn

Martha Dunn (1852-1927) was born in New York City. Orphaned at an early age, she was adopted by Rev. and Mrs. H. M. Danforth of Evans, NY.  Dunn enrolled at the Women's Homeopathic College of New York City in 1876; the following year, she enrolled at the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 1879. She practiced in Utica, NY for three years before moving to Waterbury.

Dunn practiced medicine in Waterbury for five years, from 1882 until 1887. She studied in England with Dr. Lawson Tait, a renowned surgeon, during the summer of 1887. During the return voyage to Waterbury, she met and fell in love with George H. Corey. They married in 1888; Dr. Dunn retired from her Waterbury practice a few months before their wedding.

As part of a welcome to Dr. Dunn's successor in 1888, the Waterbury American wrote somewhat optimistically "... in Waterbury the prejudice against women physicians has been almost entirely removed by the personal virtues and professional success of [Dr. Dunn]." (Anderson's History of Waterbury, Volume III, p. 850)

The Coreys moved to Springfield, Missouri after their wedding, then on to Ohio in 1891. They moved to California in 1892, where Dr. Dunn Corey continued her private practice at Pacific Beach and La Jolla (the first physician in that area) until 1900, when she moved to Marion, Ohio. She practiced medicine in Ohio until 1906, when her husband died and she returned once more to La Jolla, California.

Dr. Martha Dunn Corey
Published in A History of the Medical Profession of Southern California, 1910

Dr. Dunn Corey was a member of the Connecticut Medical Society, the Ohio Medical Society, the San Diego County Medical Association, the Southern California Medical Society, and the American Medical Association. She also published several medical papers.

Caroline Root Conkey

Caroline Root Conkey (1844-1917) practiced medicine in Waterbury for thirty years. Born in Massachusetts to Joseph and Ann Root, she married Henry Conkey in 1870. The marriage appears to have been brief.

Caroline R. Conkey graduated in 1881 from the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary and practiced medicine in Watertown, NY until 1888, when she came to Waterbury as the successor of Dr. Martha M. Dunn.

In Waterbury, Dr. Conkey specialized in "diseases of women and children" -- among her accomplishments, she invented a pessary for prolapsed uteruses. She served as an attending physician at Waterbury Hospital for three months of each year. In an obituary written by Walter L. Barber, M.D., it was noted that Conkey was subjected to excessive criticism and embarrassments from "envious male co-laborers" at the hospital.

She was a member of the New Haven County Medical Society and the Connecticut Medical Association, but resigned from both organizations a few years before her death as a protest against the misogynistic treatment she received from them, having never been invited to submit a paper or participate in their proceedings.

Dr. Conkey's obituary hints at the frequent challenges she faced as a woman in a male-dominated field. Barber wrote that she was quick to let people know, in what I assume were very blunt ways, that she resented anyone doubting her abilities as a doctor.

Dr. Caroline R. Conkey
Connecticut Magazine, Volume VI, 1900

Dr. Conkey lived at 23 Hillside Avenue from about 1890 until her death in 1917. Her house was also her medical office.

Conkey was associated for many years with the Gaylord Farm Sanatorium at Wallingford which opened in 1904, treating early stages of tuberculosis.

In 1911, Dr. Conkey received a generous bequest from a grateful former patient: Mary L. Mitchell, whose estate was valued at nearly $2 million, left her home and $5,000 to Conkey, who had been the family physician and once saved Mitchell's life. (The Sun, 25 April 1911)

She was a member of Trinity Church and of the Waterbury Golf Club, winning the women's championship in 1899. Connecticut Magazine, in a 1900 article about the golf scene in Waterbury, wrote that she was "a woman of superior physical strength, vigor, and nerve." Her golf team included Waterbury's upper crust: Mrs. Irving Chase, Mrs. JH Bronson, Helen Williams, and Florence Chipman.

Conkey died of Bright's Disease (kidney disease) at Waterbury Hospital in 1917.

Conkey shared her home and her life with Constance Goddard DuBois (1856-1934), a successful novelist best known today for her ground-breaking studies of the Native Americans of southern California. She is considered a pioneering ethnographer. During the summers from 1897 to 1907, DuBois was in California assisting the Luiseño and Diegueño people; her winters were spent advocating for them through lectures and correspondence. She wrote and lectured about their myths, religious ceremonies, and other aspects of their culture. She recorded seventeen cylinders of Luiseño songs; copies are now at the Library of Congress.  She also raised funds for them and promoted a revival of traditional basketry (helping to launch the popularity of southwestern basketry among the white middle class tourists of the early 1900s).

Constance G. DuBois
Collection of The Autry National Center;
KCET El Alisal webpage

DuBois was originally from Zanesville, Ohio, moving with her family to Charleston, WV. DuBois lived in Watertown, NY, which may be where she and Dr. Conkey met.

DuBois was listed regularly in various registers of socially prominent people (Who's Who in America; American Statesman; American Blue-Book of Biography). Her works of fiction explored themes of Colonial era witchcraft and paganism (among others--you can download many of her books through Google). She was the editor of Waterbury's Asa Gray Bulletin, a botanical publication, during the 1890s.

DuBois appears to have arrived in Waterbury in 1891, living at 23 Hillside Avenue with Dr. Conkey.  DuBois was listed in the 1900 census as Dr. Conkey's "partner" -- the next census downplayed their relationship, listing DuBois as a boarder in Conkey's household. DuBois left Waterbury after Conkey's death.

Martha C. Holmes

Martha Cornelia Holmes (1850-1904) was the daughter of Waterbury banker and entrepreneur Israel Holmes and Cornelia Coe Holmes. Her grandfather, Israel Coe, had been a pioneering brass manufacturer, state representative, and state senator. The extended family lived at "Westwood," a small estate on Holmes Avenue. The house was similar to Rose Hill, which is still standing on Prospect Street.

Martha Holmes graduated from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886. She then spent a year studying in Vienna and Paris before opening a medical practice in Harlem at 19 E. 127th Street.

Holmes was president of the Harlem YWCA and volunteered at The Sheltering Arms, an orphanage at 129th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. She was an active member of the Harlem Philharmonic Society. She was the founder and honorary president of Rota, a club for Harlem society women dedicated to the study of parliamentary law. Holmes was also a member of the Social Purity League, which in 1897 pushed for legislation in New York to punish husbands who cheated on their wives.

Holmes returned to Waterbury around 1900, living with her widowed mother at the family's home on Holmes Avenue. She did not actively practice medicine while she was here, and she made frequent trips to Harlem to participate in various social functions there. In her will, Holmes left money to the American Missionary Association of NY and the Harlem YWCA.

Amelia A. Porter

Amelia Abigail Porter (1837-1891) graduated from Boston University's School of Medicine in 1885 and began her homeopathic practice at Great Barrington, Massachusetts. She soon grew tired of making long trips through the countryside in the winter and relocated to Waterbury in 1888. Her home and office were located at 47 Central Avenue.

Although a successful doctor whose career was off to a good start, Dr. Porter developed a severe lung infection (she was described as "consumptive" in her obituary) which she failed to treat promptly. She traveled to Salida, Colorado, hoping the clean air would help her recovery, but she died a week later, on January 2, 1891.

Anna L. Smith

Anna Louise Smith (1850-1924) graduated from the Woman's Medical College of New York Infirmary in 1886. Originally from New Jersey, she practiced in Waterbury on Abbott Avenue for only a few years. She moved to Montclair, NJ in 1890, continuing her medical practice there for more than 30 years.

Isabella Cowan

Isabella Cowan (1865-1951) was the daughter of Irish immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in 1863. They settled in Middlebury on a farm during the late 1870s, moving to Waterbury after 1880. The family was large: Isabella had two brothers and eight sisters. Many of her sisters became school teachers in Waterbury.

Cowan graduated from the Waterbury high school in 1883, working as a teacher for several years. She was the principal of the Long Hill public school before deciding to study medicine in 1892. She earned her medical degree from the Woman's Medical College of NY in 1895, after which she spent a year at Johns Hopkins Hospital and interned at the Woman's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Cowan opened her medical and surgical practice on North Main Street in downtown Waterbury in 1896 and remained in practice for half a century. The 1940 census shows her as the head of household living with five of her sisters (only one of whom ever married).

Alletta L. Bedford Deming & Margery Deming

Alletta Langdon Bedford (1882-1950), originally from New Jersey, earned her medical degree from Cornell's Medical College in 1905. Her father, Peter Bedford, was also a physician.

Alletta Bedford set up her practice in Waterbury in 1906 or '07, moving into a large house on the corner of Willow and Johnson Streets. Her office was on the south side of the house, with a separate entrance on Willow Street (the main entrance of the home was on Johnson).

She married Dr. Dudley B. Deming in 1910 and retired from her practice. Her husband took over the office and they started their family in the Johnson Street house. According to their daughter Margery, Dudley Deming was opposed to women practicing medicine, saying that "he married the only good one (woman physician) he knew." (Selma Harrison Calmes, "A History of Women in American Anesthesiology," in The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia, 2014).

The Demings' daughter Margery, born in 1914, also pursued a medical career, becoming the first anesthesiologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in 1946. She and C. Everett Koop were hired that year to improve the professional standards of the hospital. Koop and Deming collaborated on developing new techniques in pediatric anesthesia, making it possible for surgeons to conduct more extensive and effective procedures. Her research made important contributions to pediatric surgical procedures. She died in 1998.

No comments: