September 1991

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Women Doctors


Robert G. Koch

It seemed a joke. In 1847 how else to take the Dean's announcement to students of the Medical College in Geneva, New York. "Gentlemen," he said, according to Arch Merrill's account, "I have here the application of one Elizabeth Blackwell of Philadelphia for admission to this college as a student. I am submitting it for your approval. What is your decision?" They took it to be a hoax, probably perpetrated by students at a rival institution. With a whoop they approved and drafted a facetious resolution of welcome.

"A few weeks later, to their stupefied amazement, a slim serious girl of 26 … presented herself at the office of the dean. Elizabeth Blackwell had come to Geneva Medical College. A dream had come true for this British-born former school teacher who had met with many rebuffs in her long campaign to gain entrance to medical school." After an awkward two years, she received "the first medical diploma ever granted to a woman in America."

The Blackwell women were strong. Although refused admission to Elizabeth's alma mater, one of her sisters also became a doctor and three others carved out demanding careers. Despite continuing opposition by fellow physicians—she was, for example, barred from practicing in New York city hospitals—Dr. Blackwell continued by example and direct effort to open the practice of medicine to women. During the Civil War, she also pioneered in training women as army nurses, and later founded a medical school for women and facilities for treating women and children in New York and New England.

Rochester's first woman physician was Dr. Sarah Dolley, who received her medical diploma in 1851, two years after Blackwell's graduation, to become the second such recipient in the United States. Sarah Adamson was a Philadelphia Quaker who had spent months exploring a book on anatomy belonging to an uncle who was a doctor. After rejection by two Philadelphia medical schools, she was admitted to the new Central Medical College in Rochester which was receiving "women students on equal terms with men." She interned—the first woman again—at a hospital in Philadelphia and then returned to Rochester to marry Dr. L. C. Dolley, who had taught surgery in the medical college.

She practiced medicine here for nearly sixty years, had two children, and became a prominent leader in the community and beyond. She helped found a free dispensary for women and children, headed the Blackwell Medical Society of Rochester, was a charter member of the American Red Cross, and headed the Women's Medical Society of the State of New York, and presided over it for the last time when hundreds of women physicians came to Rochester on her 80th birthday, March 11, 1909. Two years earlier, she was made a life member of the Rochester Academy of Sciences.

But Dr. Dolley's interest and leadership extended beyond medical matters. She was a leading spirit in the Ignorance Club, a group of women who united "for the discussion of vital topics of the hour," and was one of the founders of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, "a philanthropic organization which today operates the Opportunity Shop and funds projects primarily aiding women, children, and the elderly."

Meanwhile, in Castile, New York, where her father ran a hydropathy sanitarium, Cordelia Greene also set her sights on a medical education, first entering the Female Medical College in Philadelphia in 1854, then (as Genesee Valley historian Irene Beale points out) transferring to Cleveland Medical College, later part of Western Reserve University. She returned to Castile to help her father, then spent several years on the staff of the Clifton Springs Sanitarium, before taking over the Castile establishment after her father's death.

"Bleeding, purging and puking, [were] the unholy trinity" of popopular medical remedies in this period, so water cures, which had their own long, mixed history, must have seemed relatively benign. Dr. Greene, who, Beale indicates, was a good diagnostician, mixed various hydropathic techniques with a lot of commonsense nutrition, temperance, exercise, and psychology.

The sanitarium flourished and became Castile's largest taxpayer. This bothered Dr. Greene who once reminded the Town Board that "'taxation without representation is tyranny,' [as] she noted ironically that the mentally-retarded uncle whom she cared for could vote, when she could not."

"When asked what [testimonial] she…want[ed]…from patients, she chose a free library for Castile and donated money and land for it." It still bears her name. Beale reports that, "The fiftieth anniversary of her residence in Castile was celebrated in 1899 by several hundred friends, neighbors, and former patients." Though nearly 70 at the time, she said, "I feel that the spirit of a girl of sixteen is inside of me."

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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