Female Physicians in Early Lowell
A small number of female practitioners appear in the antebellum Lowell City Directories. There is an Indian doctress Betsey Cox in 1843, a doctress Mary Dunn in 1845, and a female physician Mrs. Patience Boyd in 1847. There is also a “root and herb” doctress Mrs. Amelia Young mentioned in a notice in the Lowell Advertiser in 1849, but does not appear in any Directories of the period. Then in 1855, beneath the list of physicians in the Business Directory, there is a subheading of “Female Physicians” with a list of the names of five women. Betsey Cox is listed in the general Directory as an “Indian doctress” as she was in the previous Directory. Mrs. Hannah P. McDowell, Mrs. Martha N. Thurston, and Mrs. Mary P. Wright are listed as physicians and Sophronia Fletcher has “physician’s office” in their listings in the general Directory.
Seven years earlier, in 1848, the American Medical Education Society was formed in Boston to provide for the medical education of women, and in 1850 the name was changed to the Female Medical Education Society. In 1848, the society's first classes were offered under the name of the Boston Female Medical School, and in 1852 the name of the school was changed to the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC). The Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania received its formal charter a month before the NEFMC, but did not begin instruction until 1850. As the NEFMC began offering classes in 1848, the NEFMC is considered the first medical college in the United States to offer medical education exclusively to women.
In 1874, after having granted medical degrees to 98 women, the NEFMC merged with Boston University to become the co-educational Boston University School of Medicine. The NEFMC’s mission was to train midwives and physicians to treat women and children. Looking at the requirements to earn a degree at the NEFMC, they were more in-depth and stringent than at many or most of the male-only medical schools at that time.
In 1854 and 1855, NEFMC awarded its first Doctor of Medicine degrees to six women, two of whom were listed as residents of Lowell; Sophronia Fletcher and Martha N. Thurston. According to the sixth annual report of the society and the college, the subject of Sophronia Fletcher’s thesis was “Insanity” and the subject of Martha N. Thurston’s thesis was “Cholera Infantum.”
In addition to Lowell having two of the first six graduates from NEFMC, there is another very important connection between this pioneering college and the city of Lowell. A number of Lowell’s citizens were early donors and supporters of the NEFMC. Oliver M. Whipple and Dr. Royal Call are both listed as Life-Members in the 1850 Report of the Female Education Society, which was the first report issued by the society. Oliver Whipple donated $30 and Dr. Call donated $25 at the very beginning of the venture. Twenty-six citizens of Lowell including Whipple and Call paid a fee and affixed their names to the society’s Constitution. John Nesmith of Lowell also became a Life Patron of the society.
Sophronia Fletcher (1806 – 1906), one of six women in the first graduating class of NEFMC, was born in Alstead, New Hampshire. She is listed as a resident of Lowell in NEFMC publications and in the one Directory (1855) She has strong family connections in Lowell, but seems to have only practiced in Lowell for about a year. She attended the Fletcher Family Reunion in Lowell in 1878 where she is listed in the program as a resident of Claremont, New Hampshire.
Dr. Fletcher was the first woman to practice medicine in Boston and the first female physician and physiology instructor at Mount Holyoke Seminary. She was also the attendant physician of the New England Female Moral Reform Association for nine years. In 1874 she petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to allow women physicians to be employed to attend women in public institutions such as asylums and prisons. The bill was passed by the Legislature. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the Martin Plot on Halesia Path. According to findagrave.com, there is no tombstone and the grave is unmarked.
Martha Nichols Thurston was the other Lowell resident who was among the first six graduates of NEFMC. She, like Dr. Fletcher, appears as a physician only in the 1855 Lowell Directory. Dr. Thurston was married to a physician, and a year and a half after receiving her MD she was practicing medicine with her husband in San Francisco. One reference refers to her as the first woman physician in California and another says that she was one of the first woman physicians in San Francisco. A local paper at the time has advertisements stating that she and her husband had offices at the Hillman’s Temperance House. No. 80 Davis Street in San Francisco where she is a “Physician for Women and Children.”
Dr. Rachel Humphrey Allyn (1810 – 1903) was listed as a student and a Lowell resident in two of the Female Medical Education Society's reports. Some sources say she graduated from the NEFMC in 1857; however, she finished her degree in 1857 at the Worcester Medical College*, which admitted both women and men, after beginning her studies at NEFMC. She practiced nursing in Lowell for 10 years before getting her medical degree then practiced medicine in Lowell for over 25 years.
Lowell Daily Citizen, June 16, 1857
She was a pupil at Newbury Seminary in Vermont from 1837 to 1840. In a History of Newbury Vermont published in 1902, there is an interesting story involving “Miss Allyn, now Dr. Rachel Allyn.” During her time at the school “a colored girl presented herself for admission”:
Her coming made some sensation and there were those who advised her exclusion from the school, and the steward was inclined to refuse her a place at the boarding-house, But the preceptress insisted that she should come, and gave her a seat next to her own at the table, to the great disgust of some, who predicted the ruin of the school. Miss Allyn, now Dr. Rachel Allyn, who furnishes this reminiscence, shared her room with the colored young lady, and no calamity came upon the institution for this action.
Dr. Allyn is buried in Bly Cemetery in Charleston Vermont. The inscription on her gravestone reads “Rachel Humphrey Allyn, M.D., dau of Abner and Anna, born in Charleston Apr 25 1810. Graduated at Boston Mass June 17, 1857. Died July 11, 1903, aged 93 years, 2 mos 18 days.”
Other female physicians in Lowell during this period (listed with the years of the Directories in which their names appear) were Sarah H. Young (1859, 1861), Hannah P. McDowell (1855, 1858, 1859, 1861), Mary P. Wright (1855, 1858, 1859, 1861), Esther C. Wileman (1858, 1859), and Eleanor Merrill (1859).
* “Worcester Medical College, Eclectic. Organized 1848 as New England Botanico-Modical College, reorganized 1852 as Worcester Medical College, Eclectic. Moved to Boston 1857, to Worcester 1858. Extinct 1859.” (Medical Colleges of the United States and of foreign countries 1916).
"Education of Women for the Medical Profession." From The Lowell Courier, February 13, 1851.
The Burlington Free Press, July 23, 1903
The following excerpts from Dr. Rachel Allyn’s diary are from a book titled Vermont Is a State I Love (1976) by Esther Buck Hamilton. The chapter, "Aunt Rachel," about Dr. Allyn was written by Evelyn Allyn McDonald.
The year of the entry was not always included in the book, so here if the year could be identified, it is included here in brackets. Other notations including people and landmarks were are noted or hyperlinked to annother resource on the web.
Excerpts from Dr. Rachel Allyn’s Diary -
Feb. 2nd., 1861. Paid house rent for last month $2. Visited Mrs. E., age 84. Is suffering from neuralgic old age. Visited Mrs. N. Left med., 25¢. Took tea at Mr. Goldsmith's. Went in the eve to Huntington Hall. Heard Rev. Henry Ward Beecher lecture on "What Shall be Done with New England?" He gave a lively portraiture of N.E.
Feb. 4th. Coldest day of the season. Plants froze. Went in the eve to H. Hall and heard Rev. Dr. Vinton lecture on Wellington. Called on Mrs. E., very poorly.
April 30th . National Fast.
Daily Courier, April 28, 1863
May 29th . 6th Mass. Reg. returned having served their term of 9 months, mostly at Suffolk . Went on to South Common with the crowd to see them. [See article in the References section below] Returned and went to 12 Austin Street to see Noyes children who are convalescing (scarlet fever), but very poor, or emaciated.
May 31st. Called before midnight to go to case of obstetrics at Mr. Landers's Bleachery. Birth about 2 o'clock-daughter. Mrs. L. apparently doing well at 9 o'clock though exhausted. Went to church. No eve meeting as there was Union Sabbath School Concert at Huntington Hall.
June 14th. Rose early. Went to No. 12 Austin Street. Patients doing well. Took breakfast there. Went to George Farnham's, Willey Street. Got vaccine virus scab from arm of child which I had vaccinated. Called at Joshua Melvin's. Vaccinated two children. Called at Dr. Burnham's. Gave Dr. Bass vaccine. Came home, dressed, and went to church and Sabbath School. Came home to dinner. Called on Mrs. Myzott. Went to church afternoon, then to Mr. Earnshaw's. Left prescription. I got a vaccine scab. Went to Mr. Landers's Bleachery. Took tea. Prepared bitters and uterine tonic. Vaccinated Mrs. Landers's niece. Called at Mr. Ferron's, who is very low. Called on Mrs. Cheney to see Mrs. Soule. Got home a little past 9 o'clock eve.
June 27th. Took $51 in U.S. Bank bills in exchange for others. Told Mrs. Butterfield when I intend to start for Vermont.
June 29th. Took bills and settled with patients. Bought at Baxters' cloth for dress and skirt. Paid $1.25. Bought at Youngs' mitts, veils, thread, handkerchief, braid. Paid $2.30. Bought at Page and Puffers' 5 cakes of Stearns soap, $.50, also 2 lbs. sugar, $.31. Called on Mrs. Page. Found her and child doing well. Dined there. Took the obstetrical fee, $5.00. Got things together at home for packing.
June 30th. Went to stage office. Took a ticket from Lawrence to Island Pond. Paid $6.05. Called at P.O. Packed until a late hour.
July 1st. Rose early. Got ready and started a little past 7 a.m., having breakfasted with Mrs. Foster and Clark. Paid to coachman at Depot 20¢. Took Carrie Butterfield in my car at Depot. Paid $.45
fare to Lawrence for myself and half price for Carrie. Stopped about an half hour at Lawrence, then came in Boston and Maine cars (to Portland, Me.). When we got to the right Depot, I got my baggage put away for safe keeping until I should call for it. Took coach and went to Cumberland Street to Rev. Wm. R. Clark's. Took dinner there. Was very tired. Spent the night.
July 2nd. After breakfast Anna Clark went out with us to show us the City. Visited M.E. Church on Chestnut Street. Very fine. Went to Portland City Hall and Courtrooms building. Took a view of it, found it very nice, then ascended 150 steps to the cupola where we had a fine view of the City and harbor. Went to the old burying ground to visit the grave of my Aunt Lane. Did not find it. Got back to Rev. Clark's to a nice dinner. Coachman came for us to go to· Depot, got my baggage checked and aboard the cars of Grand Trunk. Came on safely. Had a hard shower. Conversed with a gent about the Poland Springs 30 miles N.W. from Portland. His recommendation was for dyspepsia. Conversed with a Mr. Heath from Lancaster. Told him who I was and sent several of my cards to Lancaster cousins. Arrived at Island Pond at dusk. Charles Streeter recognized me and took my hand baggage to Bradley Farmer's where I was cordially received. Had a chance to send notice of my arrival to my brother [Alpha] and family - Charleston.
August 6th. National Thanksgiving for the success of our Army in the capture of Vicksburg. The schoolteacher has boarded here this week. The weather has been very trying for haying. I find it almost impossible to sleep nights my mind is so engrossed with cares here and thoughts at home.
August 18th. Came to Mr. Driver's on the farm where I was born. Spent the night.
August 23rd. Mr. Driver carried me to the Hollow to church. Heard Rev. Mr. Loren preach at Congregational Church, then went to the Baptist, heard the last singing and prayer offered by Rev. H. Bracket. Stopped in the Sabbath School. Went with Mrs. Bracket to Hezekiah Cole's. Returned to Baptist Church. Heard a funeral sermon on the death of Abel Parlin, a soldier. The house was crowded. Sermon by Rev. Isaac Blake, one of the same regiment. Abel was son of my old friend, Amos Parlin. Was represented to be a young man of rare worth and to have been a Christian. The text for his funeral, viz., "Be of Good Character". Returned to Mr. Driver's. Found my arrival necessary. Before dark Mrs. Driver had a son born - a Mrs. Worth was with me.
August 24th. Staid and nursed Mrs. Driver. Visited at Enoch Colby's. Bought 10 lbs. maple sugar. Paid $1.00.
August 27th. Came again to Mr. Garland's where I spun and doubled and twisted 12 knots of stocking yarn.
September 27th. Went early to love feast with all the family. Had a profitable hour. Rev. Mr. Bullard preached upon baptism. At noon Rev. Mr. Howard administered the ordinance of baptism to Mr. George Piece and wife, to my brother and wife, and Abbie. Rev. Mr. Bullard preached again in afternoon. We had a good prayer meeting in the eve.
October 9th. Spent last night at Mr. Lockwood's, 34 Auburn Street, Boston. This morn took the girls about B. to see the sights. Came to the Depot. Got Carrie's baggage from the Boston and Maine Depot, paid 12¢. Gave her up to H.J. Adams and Conductor Short for safe conveyance home. Bought Rosetta 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of thick-soled leather boots and a bosom pin, paid $2.25. Returned to Mr. Lockwood's after having called on Mrs. Elisha Goodwin and Mrs. Luther Melvin. Dined and visited awhile. Came on horse cars and came to Brighton, 22¢ for tickets. Stopped and took tea with Mrs. Wood, then came to Cushman's to spend the night. Found all well and expecting me. Delivered the things I brought from Mrs. Bradley Farmer of Island Pond.
November 4th. Rose early. Got patients cared for. I dressed and took the 1/4 to 10 car to Cambridge. Called on Mrs. Doctress Haley. Had a pleasant call. Heard her report 3 difficult cases in her practice. Called, 59 Elm Street, on the widow D. Wood, formerly of Lowell. Was pleasantly received. Took dinner. A little past 2 o'clock took East Cambridge cars; came to Boston. Took Metropolitan Car to No. 10 East Canton Street to hear Dr. Sarah Salisbury's address before the N.E.F.M. College Association, only about 25 present. Had a pleasant interview with a few old friends, particularly Prof. F.S. Cooke and Sarah Salisbury. Heard the news of the death of Dr. Susan R. Copen of Sharon, Mass., which occurred the 18th of October. She was nearly 42 years old, highly valued for her many virtues as citizen, friend, and Christian, also for her medical knowledge and skill. She was a graduate of' N.E.F.M.C. of the class of 1857. Took tea at Dr. Lockwood's. Returned to Brighton to H. Cushman's.
November 14th. Baked 2 pies. Finished gingham dress. Was called to H.J. Adams to assist in ministering to the wants of his mother, who is in an apoplectic condition, mostly comatose. Was there 4 hours. Paid 28 cents for pack. of Indian meal, 8 for bread, 4 for saleratus. Mrs. Gray paid me $2. for rent for the month of October.
December 1st. At half past 12 Rene Kinney died after much suffering (inflammatory rheumatism). I laid the body out, assisted until nearly noon. Came home. Had been sent for to go to Mr. McDuffee's. Found George approaching his end on earth. Hu begged that I should never leave him. I staid and tried to soothe his sufferings.
December 2nd. At about half past 12 George died having given us comforting assurances for him to die would be gain. His hope, he prayed, was alone in Christ and he was going home. I laid out his body and spent the rest of the night there.
December 3rd. Waited on Mr. Hull and did other things for the family. Got Mrs. Adams to make a green wreath to lay upon the coffin. Arranged the body in the coffin with green leaves and snow drops. Attended the funeral at 5 o'clock eve after which I assisted Dr. Bass in taking sutures to close the eyes. Went to Huntington Hall to hear George Curtis Esy lecture on “The Way to Peace”. It was a fine lecture, but I was dull. Called at McD. Promised to go in early next morn.
December 4th. Went before light to assist in packing the coffin and getting the family ready. They started with the body for Berwick, Me., at 7 a.m. I stopped at the house, cut and pared some defective sweet apples, brought them home, baked an apple custard and baked some for sauce. Mr. and Mrs. Kinney came to me to go out to make mourning purchases and material for robe for Rene. Mrs. K. returned and took dinner with me. I then went to Mrs. Fuller's to meeting of Female Moral Reform Society. 8 or 10 present.
December 6th. Went to Mr. Adams's for wreath. Took calfskin boots to Father Butterworth's. Paid him $.70 to mend them. Then went to No. 52 West Union Street to see Mrs. Wait. Lanced an abscess, $.75. Went to Mr. Kinney's. Assisted in arranging the robe and flowers, had very beautiful ones. The body had kept well and looked beautiful. Rev. Mr. Webber officiated at the funeral at 2 o'clock. I went to the grave and returned and took supper with the bereaved parents. Left some medicine for Berte who has not recovered from the effects of scarlet fever 6 weeks ago. Came home. Got beans and pork ready for next day's dinner.
December 7th. Went to church all day at St. Paul's. In the eve went to Huntington Hall to hear Rev. Mr. Mansfield lecture on "Temperance" before the Wamasit Association. It was pointed and worthy of the cause.
December 10th. Went in the eve to South Congregational Church. National Thanksgiving for the retreat of the rebels in East Tennessee.
December 12th. Prof. Dunn called. I consulted with him upon case of femoral hernia. Mrs. G. took truss of him. I lent her $5.30 to pay him. Called again to see Freddie McDuffee. Went to office of "American Citizen", paid $.75. Went to Flanders for my felt bonnet left there to be pressed, paid $.20. Went to P.O. Came home. Missed $3.00. Think I lost a three dollar bill. Rose put wire in my bonnet. Purchased of Mrs. Story bonnet trimmings, $.57. Gave Mrs. H. med. and advice. No charge.
December 31st. Went to party. Crystal wedding of Father and Mother North. Then to watch meeting.
January 31st., 1864. Went to Hurd Street to church all day. Heard Rev. Mr. Peck from Chelsea preach upon the immortality of the soul, both a.m. and p.m. Went to Lowell Sabbath School Union at 1st Baptist Church. Music by the children, speeches by clergymen and superintendents.
Feb. 18th. Want out to make friendly and business calls. Went to No. 7 5th Street, Centralville. Took dinner at Mr. Penhollow's. Called to collect $10 bill of Mrs. W.H. Find she has absconded clandestinely.
March 1st. Horse cars commenced regular trips today.
March 8th. Made calls. Went to P.O. and a little while in prayer meeting. Then went to see the H. boy. Found him with oppressive dysphonia; had taken cold from imprudence. Thought him in great danger of bronchial pneumonia. Took hold heroically to lessen the fever and remove the oppression, but, saw omens of bad treatment, lack of good nursing, and quackery. A spiritualist mesmeric Dr. came before I got away. As I was alarmed about the case, I staid two hours. I think I was the means of saving the child's life.
March 27th. Went to 36th. Anniversary of St. Paul's M.E. Sabbath School. Went in eve and heard a history of St. Paul's M.E. Church for 40 years. Crowded.
April 19th. Went to Court House to see Green, the Malden murderer .
May 10th. Visited Miss H. who is still improving. Left powders as cathartic. Went to I. Densmore's to prescribe for Maria Parker, triturated med. and left for her. Made calls. Went to prayer meeting. The President gives thanks for success of our Army.
May 13th. Called a few moments at Rev. I. Dean's. Several ladies mending the Flag ready to float it when Richmond is taken.
May 27th. Baked bread and cake. Filled straw bed. Was called to I.E. Short's, acted Accoucheuse for his wife, daughter weighing 9 1/2 lbs. Went to Mrs. Kimball for some clean collars. Went to the sewing circle annual meeting. Was chosen one of the directors. Got the report from Mrs. North and carried it to Rev. I.E. Rankin. Gave Mrs. George Farnham certificate of vaccination for her child, took 20¢.
May 28th. Filled husk bed. Swept the house all over. Made soup and sauce. Wrote notices to be read in the churches and walked largely over the City to distribute them. Made calls. Mrs. Drew from Chelmsford dined with me. Made evening calls.
May 29th. Sabbath. Went to St. Paul's during the day and to Appleton Street in the eve to the 27th. Anniversary of the Lowell Female Moral Reform Society. Discourse by Rev. I.E. Rankin. I went into Mrs. Goodale's to count the collection taken in the church. Got over 21 dollars.
June 3rd. Went to vestry - rolled bandages several hours for soldiers in hospital.
June 7th. 7 years ago today I took the degree of M.D. and today I have a full share of the cares of the profession, yet I do not regret my choice.
June 9th. Spent last night with Mrs. M. Gave her uterine tonic. Left without signs of labor at present. Made friendly calls. A Mr. and Mrs. called to secure abortive services and got in return as good a moral reform lecture as I was capable of giving.
June 11th. Carried hatchet and parasol to Mr. I. Densmore's for him to repair.
June 14th. Had present of ticket to go to Fakin Magic Show. Time poorly spent.
June 17th. Spent last night with Mrs. M. Daughter born 5 o'clock this morn weighing 8 1/4. Left mother and child doing well, after having vaccinated the two older children. Mrs. M. paid me for services the past month $7.00. She being a soldier's wife was considered. Made several calls. Came home, dressed, and went to funeral of Lewis Frost who was stabbed by a furloughed soldier in liquor. It was a painfully interesting case - a loud call for moral reform.
July 4th. Noise enough. Went on to C. hill to see a small display of fireworks.
August 20th. Staid until near 10 o'clock at Mr. Russell's employed with the sick. Left med. Came home. Found Mrs. Dr. Hill and her husband from Lawrence on a visit. Spent most of day with them. Dr. Hill went with me and saw Dr. Kimball operate on Miss Meserve's eye for strabismus; also to see Mrs. Bacon, patient of Dr. Savory's - were both allowed to examine the case - inversion of the uterus. Walked around with my company. Visited patients.
September 13th. Gave patient galvanic battery treatment.
September 29th. Baked and washed more windows. Carried Mrs. Barnes 2 bottles med., 50¢. Made calls. Brought home my pillows. An unknown lady called to get an abortion produced. I gave her moral and religious advice. She wept and went away.
September 30th. Another would-be-called lady came and had a long talk about dislike of being confined with children. Had 3 times had abortions produced - admitted that it had destroyed her health. I gave another moral reform lecture.
October 10th. Went with Mrs. Clark to Huntington Hall. Heard Revs. Eddy and Hannicut talk in earnest on the state of the country - excellent.
October 22nd. Dracut Merrimack Mills burned last night – great fire .
October 26th. Rosetta came. Paid $9.85 fare from Island Pond. She brought from Mrs. Garland 13 1/4 lbs. butter and sugar made on my land, 2 chickens and some vegetables.
November 7th. Went to Huntington Hall. Heard Mason of Newton, Sennot of Boston, on political matters - night before election. [The next day Lincoln was reelected for a second term.]
November 12th. Rose early and got ready to leave home for several days. Went to Father North's for breakfast. Left my silver spoons there, some important papers, and some cash.
November 22nd. I left Cherry Valley. Came to Worcester. Hunted up Doctress Sylvia Goodwin, No. 15 Austin Street. Engaged her to attend Mrs. H. when she should need. Called on Mr. Stackpole at Foster Mills. He went with me to his house. Staid until after dinner. Mrs. Stackpole went about the City with me. Went into Washburn Hall to the celebration of water being introduced into the City. A splendid feat. Came home in the last train.
December 26th. Went to I. Densmore's. Paid what I subscribed yesterday. Bought Rosetta boots $2.00. Put them on Christmas tree in vestry. Went there in the eve. Took tea at Father Homer's.
December 29th. Went to I.E. Short's in the eve with his S.S. class. Made the presentation speech and delivered the present, viz., a breakfast castor. Most of the class was there - a surprise.
September 22nd, 1866. Obstetrical case, $10.00. Gave the infant boy $1.00 and the name Allyn.
From the 1861 Lowell City Directory
From the 1875 - 1876 Lowell City Directory
From the Orleans County Monitor, July 20, 1903