LDS women contributed to medicine in 1800s

The accomplishments and contributions of Utah women pioneers in medicine are neither few nor unremarkable, and recognition due them is coming forth through the Presidential Endowed Chair in Radiology Honoring Pioneering Utah Women in Medicine.

The chair has been established at the University of Utah School of Medicine, with Dr. Anne Osborn Poelman, a professor of radiology, as its first occupant. (See article above.)"While frontier women are typically eulogized for their courage and self-sacrifice in colonizing a new territory, few recognize their contributions to the professionalization and advancement of women everywhere," said Marie W. Mackey, who has been researching the topic of Utah's pioneering women in medicine.

Marie, a sophomore at Harvard University, has been working as a research assistant to Sister Poelman for the past two summers.

"The entrance of women into the medical profession had its origins in a unique set of circumstances," she said. "For many years, women, particularly mothers, filled a large void in frontier health care. In the early days of the Church, much skepticism prevailed against doctors.

"Because doctors were initially held in such disrepute, women played a natural role in the process of healing. They learned to detect early signs of childhood illness and developed medicines from such herbs as dried raspberry leaves, lobelia and sagebrush, following counsel given in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants."

Marie's research included the role of women as midwives. Some midwives served unofficially as "doctor" for their pioneers towns; they set broken bones, extracted rotten teeth and treated an assortment of illnesses.

"With time, the medical profession revolutionized," Marie said. "As medical knowledge improved, many Church leaders recognized the advantages of medical doctors. Brigham Young longed to make Utah self-sufficient in all respects and independent of any gentile assistance. Recognizing the fact that the Saints would need doctors, he began sending several recently returned missionaries back East to study medicine. He also realized the time had come for the emergence of women doctors. In general conference of 1873, President Young issued the famous call for women to venture out into the medical profession. The time has come,' he said,for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.' Eliza R. Snow, then president of the Central Board of the Relief Society, echoed the words of President Young, calling for women of `nerve, energy and ambition' to attend medical school."

Among the most prominent women doctors in Utah's early history are names such as Romania Bunnell Pratt, who enrolled in Women's Medical College in Philadelphia in 1873, and practiced medicine in Salt Lake City until 1912. Others were Ellis Reynold Shipp, who graduated from Women's Medical College in 1878, and Margaret Curtis Shipp Roberts, who graduated in 1883. All returned to Salt Lake City, practiced medicine and taught classes in nursing and obstetrics.

Other women doctors in Utah's early history included Ellen Brooke Ferguson, who set up a private practice in Provo in 1832; Martha Hughes Cannon, who not only was a prominent doctor but was also the first woman State Senator in the United States; Jane Wilkie Manning Skofield, who is considered Utah's first female surgeon and the first woman admitted as an intern to any hospital in Utah.

Marie has spent uncounted hours researching in libraries and archives for information about Utah's pioneering women in medicine. She has done much "original research," discovering information on her own that apparently has not been documented by other researchers. For example, she has gone through old telephone directories looking for names of women listed as physicians or doctors. She also has tracked down, or is in the process of following up on, information she has received during casual conversations. "At a Christmas party in my neighborhood, I met a professor at BYU who had some information to give to me," she said. "Last summer, I was talking to a woman who mentioned some graves in southern Utah. On the tombstones were the words `Woman Doctor.' I want to find out where those graves are and get whatever information I can on these women."

Marie, who graduated from West High in Salt Lake City in 1994, is majoring in English at Harvard. She hopes to tie in her research on Utah's pioneering women doctors with a thesis at some point in her studies.

"This is one of the most fascinating things I've ever been involved in," she said. "Historically, a lot of people outside Utah perceived women in Utah as being very much oppressed. It's interesting to see through history that the opposite was true; women in Utah actually had many opportunities that women outside Utah didn't have."