Women and Hygiene


   The practice of medicine was a male monopoly. Medical colleges would not admit female students. Practicing physicians rejected all applications from females who wished to serve an apprenticeship in medicine. Examining and licensing boards would not examine and license females. Not until a woman's medical college was established were women admitted to the study of medicine. These facts were true of the allopathic, homeopathic, physio-medical and eclectic schools of medicine in the United States.

   The newer school, represented by that established by Nichols and the one established by Trall, admitted female students to their first classes and did not hesitate to graduate women with the degree, Doctor of Medicine. What is more, these women doctors were eagerly received by the people and made an excellent name for themselves. You will not find them listed among the early medical practitioners and, although a number of them graduated with the degree, Doctor of Medicine, before the first woman graduated from the first woman's medical college, no medical historian has yet included them among the first female doctors.

   When Graham began his lectures, so great was the public opposition to lectures by a man on subjects of anatomy and physiology, either to mixed audiences or to female audiences, that a call was issued for women lecturers to do this work. Among those who responded to the call was Mrs. Mary Gove. Mrs. Gove not only championed the work of Graham, but was in the forefront of the battle for women's rights, for dress reform and other reforms of her time. In common with all those who opposed established institutions and proposed new and improved ones, she underwent persecution at the hands of the defenders of the old order.

Mary Gove Nichols

   In the April 1853 issue of Nichols' Journal, Mary Gove says: "I acknowledge I have been mobbed on account of my dress. Fourteen years ago several persons determined to tar and feather me if I dared to lecture in a certain small city. I thought I was needed there and I went, with solemn conviction, and God gave me favor with the people. I outlived all this ignorance. Still it is true that prejudice was bitter and cruel in those days . . . Years have greatly mended the manner of the mobs, but more than one scamp has felt the weight of my husband's cane in this city."

   Mary said: "Women have so long acted, and almost existed, by leave granted by the majority, that they have little idea of independent action. The public puts its mold upon us, and we come out as nearly alike as peas. Our wrists and feet just so small and 'delicate,' our minds just so dull and stupid, our bodies bagged, and our whole lives belittled into 'feminine propriety.' Mind, health, beauty and happiness are all sacrificed to the processes of mold; but, then, woman has the comfort of keeping in her 'sphere,' till her brief and terrible misery is over and she dies out of it."

   Mary wrote: "My remedy for all this slavery of women is for her to begin to judge and act for herself. God made her for herself, as much as man was made for himself. She is not to be the victim of man, or false public opinion."

   It is true that we must learn to think for ourselves and to stand upon our own two feet. Unfortunately, as she said, "it has been the habit of Americans to carry everything by force of majorities. In the immaturity of man, this must be. Those who are not men and women enough to stand alone must be bolstered up by their fellows and if very weak, by a majority of their fellows. We have become so used to the doctrine that the majority must rule that we forget that it may be a great wrong. Are a thousand tyrants better than one? We seem to forget minority rights altogether."

   It is strange that in America, where more people become Protestants, at least as far as civil rights are concerned, by virtue of the very air they breathe, in which there was the beginning of a new and ultraprotestantism--the protest universal--that is, the protest against custom and authority in all things, that there should have existed such violent opposition to the demands made by women that they be permitted to join the human race. What wonder, then, that Mary could ask: "why is my friend or my neighbor, my ruler, my king or my tyrant? If I must wear the same fashion garments that another wears, if my taste, my convenience, my occupation are not to determine for me this question of clothing, what am I but a slave? If I must eat, drink, walk and talk according to the will of others, where is my freedom? My country may have emancipated itself from political interference and rule, but where is individual freedom? The recognition of the right of every human being to individual liberty is the foundation fact of all true human culture."

   It is said that fools can ask questions which it takes wise men to answer. It is also true that close upon questionings come answers and, often, the ability to ask a question implies the ability to answer it. When the people boldly put the question: "Why are we to maintain kings and nobles; why are we to give tithes of all we possess; why are we to allow others to think for us, to control our thoughts and actions?" the answer is not far from their lips. In like manner, when the women of the middle of the last century asked why they had to be slaves of fashion and why they should be denied access to the professions, the answers to these questions were already in their possession.

   As an example of the demands of women for increased liberty, the move for more healthful and less hampering female attire excited their attention even more than did the demand for the ballot. In 1849 the feminine costume that came to be known as bloomers was designed or invented by Mrs. Elizabeth Smith Miller. The original bloomer reached down to the ankles and was accompanied by a short skirt that reached almost to the knees. The attire was devoid of beauty and never became popular with the women of the period, although many women adopted it and suffered from the hands of the mob for doing so. In their "modesty" the early advocates of woman's rights never dared dream of the short skirts and halters, one-piece bathing suits, bikinis and nudity that are now regular features of woman's attire. The bloomer covered woman's body as thoroughly as did her long skirts, but provided for greater freedom of movement. Mrs. Miller showed a working model of her new dress to Amelia J. Bloomer, a famous advocate of woman's rights. Mrs. Bloomer was so fascinated by the idea of new garments for women that were both "modest" and convenient that she promptly sponsored them. They came to be known by her name rather than that of their inventor.

   Almost as active in the demand for woman's rights and in the dress reform movement as Mary Gove, was Harriet N. Austin, M.D., adopted daughter and associate of Dr. James C. Jackson. Dr. Austin, who edited The Laws of Life for a number of years, was one of the early graduates of the American Physiological and Hydropathic College. She was among the first women in the world to receive the degree, doctor of medicine, having received this degree a few years before the women's medical college was established. Dr. Austin was a close personal friend of Clara Barton and Mrs. Barton left, in her own handwriting, a stirring tribute to the sterling qualities and professional abilities of Dr. Austin. Harriet N. Austin was born in Connecticut on August 31, 1826; she retired from active practice in 1882 and died in North Adams, Mass., April 27, 1891.

   Hygienists espoused many causes, but the Hygienic movement was no mere loose collection of reform movements and measures such as vegetarianism, temperance, clothing reform, sex education of the young, the teaching of physiology and Hygiene in the public schools, etc. But, these things were espoused only to the extent that they could be integrated with the more fundamental problem of creating a radically different and total way of life. The part played by Mrs. Gove, Harriet N. Austin, M.D., Susannah W. Dodds, M.D., and other women Hygienists in the dress reform movement, though important, must be viewed against a background of the total Hygienic movement. Drs. Austin and Dodds discarded the regular female attire and wore pants, a daring thing for a woman to do in those days; but it took daring to be a Hygienist of any kind. Coming to the position of Hygienists on female doctors, let me quote the following from the Journal of October 1861, where M. Augusta Fairchild, M.D., says: "Comets were once looked upon as omens of war. Female doctors may be viewed in very much the same light; for wherever they have made their appearance, a general uprising of the people to welcome them, and the most vigorous attempt of the regular masculine dignitaries of the 'profession' to quell the 'insurrection' have been the result.

   "'The people' are non-professional; therefore, they will sometimes be quieted by the dictates of common sense, and thus they are led to appreciate the offices of woman as physician. Their professional pride and dignity and pocket-book is not at stake, so they can well afford to open their eyes and 'see the light."' She further says: "The learned doctors are stalking about blindfolded;" the people "are looking out clearly and rejoicingly over the beautiful landscape where 'mid the pleasant fields of life and hope flows the bright crystal stream of health, and from along its banks the fragrant blossoms of love and charity send forth their sweet perfume . . ."

   Dr. Fairchild was the author of a book, How To Be Well, which was published in 1879 by S. R. Wells & Co. It was a small popular work describing Hygienic care of the sick and received the hearty endorsement of Dr. Robert Walter, who briefly reviewed it in The Laws of Health.

   Dr. Fairchild wrote much upon Hygiene and lectured widely upon the subject. She asked: are female doctors acceptable; do the people receive them? "Yes," she answers, "and there is a great demand for them. 'Sick sisters' are everywhere. Young girls are sick; they apply to a male physician; he gives drugs, which fasten her name on his books as a life-patient. From year to year she drags through girlhood and if she is strong enough to live in spite of her 'remedies,' she enters with a broken-down constitution upon womanhood . . ."

   Dr. Fairchild stressed the fact that it is not true that on the part of the people there prevails an utter dislike for physiological knowledge. They want it, she declared; they know they need it and they will have it; for there is a little army of men and women at work throughout the country and they mean to carry the knowledge to every part of the land. In her article, she says: "A woman doctor is naturally a hygienist. Some were educated at drug schools, but they do not imbibe the poisons--they don't believe in the drug practice, for they don't follow it in their treatment. They know and see that the hygienic treatment is most successful; it is more in accordance with nature. It is true. So they practice it--and teach it--and wherever hygiene is taught, there druggery receives a death blow . . . Assentions to the cause of hygienic medication are being made constantly and we may expect more, for in these days people think, and thinking will come to the truth."

   She further says of the woman doctor: "Her suffering sisters welcome her with delight and 'will not let her go,' till she has repeated to them of how the precious boon of health may be restored to them."

   Nearly half of the early enrollments in the college of HygeoTherapy were women. As an example, Trall states, editorially, in the October 1861 issue of the Journal, that "since our last issue we have booked nearly 20 new names, one-half of whom are females, who apprize us that they are making arrangements to be with us for the Winter term of the New York Hygeo-Therapeutic College, to commence on the second Monday of November. Among the women graduates of the college was Mrs. Amelia W. Alines, M.D., Mrs. C. L. Smalley, M.D., Mrs. E. M. Hurd, M.D., and Miss Adaline M. Willis, M.D. Miss Willis was the youngest graduate of the class of 1856.

   Mrs.Lydia F.Fowler, M.D., was professor of obstetrics in the New York College of Hygeo-Therapeutics. In 1861 Mrs. Fowler visited the great hospital of Santo Spirito in Italy. Here she was told by one of the heads of the institution that the most celebrated accoucheurs were those who spared the greatest part of the operations which the common practitioners had thought necessary to perform; parturition being a function so closely concerned with the conservation of species, nature has been very sedulous and perfect in it. Hence, an imperfect hand ought very rarely to interfere. This statement was so closely in keeping with the Hygienic view that Dr. Fowler commented upon it at great length.

   Many are the names of women who stand out prominently in the annals of Natural Hygiene. Among these is that of Miss Abigail S. Cogswell, M.D., who was a graduate of the Hygeo-Therapeutic College. Unfortunately, due to the wrecked state of her constitution, her life was short. Dr. Trall says of her death: "She died at Hudson, Ohio, May 30, aged 31 years. Four years ago she came to us in an exceedingly frail condition of health. She had been employed for several years as schoolteacher (an occupation, as school-teachers are generally obliged to live, very ruinous to constitutions); she had been seriously sick on various occasions and had been repeatedly drugged nearly to death by the doctors. Mercurial salivation had made sad havoc with her vitality and had induced a troublesome 'throat-ail' with bronchitis to a degree which so frequently proves the precursor of a fatal consumption. But by careful management she recovered a comfortable state of health and at the end of three years was a very fair, but still fragile specimen of health and vigor."

   Dr. Trall says of her: "It was impossible for Miss Cogswell to see suffering and not sympathize with the sufferer. She could not witness error and ignorance without striving with all her might to correct and enlighten. She was wholly consecrated to the work of her noble calling; and though her own career was short, she has been the means of leading thousands of her fellow creatures into the ways of life and health." He adds that, "last fall she took an arduous and responsible position in the Cleveland Water Cure and no doubt greatly over-estimated and over-taxed her bodily powers. The result we have already stated."

Susanna W. Dodds, M.D.

   Perhaps the most outstanding woman graduate of the HygeoTherapeutic College was Susannah Way Dodds, M.D., whose writings and lectures upon the subject of Hygiene constitute a valuable addition to Hygienic literature. Dr. Dodds and her sister-in-law, Mary Way, M.D., established a college of Hygienic medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Dodds lived into the present century and continued to shock the prudish of her era by wearing pants instead of dresses.

   Numerous other women could be named who graduated from the Hygeo-Therapeutic College and who played prominent roles in Hygienic activity in the latter half of the last century and the beginning of this. But enough has been said to establish the fact that woman's role as Hygienist is an important one. Dr. Fairchild's language, previously quoted, indicates very strongly that the early women graduates of the woman's medical college were more inclined to practice Hygienically than medically. Perhaps this was the reason that the medical colleges ultimately opened their doors to women students. They probably thought it best to indoctrinate women medical graduates in the same theories and practices that men physicians were trained in. With the revival of Hygiene, it is to be hoped that women will again take an active part in its work.