Genesee Valley, home of early female medical pioneers

Western New York has a rich history filled with social movements from issues like abolition to temperance to the women’s suffrage movement. 

Few, however, know that many of the first women in medicine came from the Genesee Valley region. Even fewer know about their ties to famous civil rights leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Historical researcher Jane Oakes ’79 shared stories of the first women physicians at the Livingston County Historical Society and Museum on Sunday Jan. 22.

The rich history of women breaking into the medical industry begins with Elizabeth Blackwell. After attending Geneva Medical College she became the first female physician in America. She was the first in a long process of normalizing female scientists and doctors, as evidenced by the fact that the school she went to closed its doors to women after she graduated. 

“It is so interesting to me today to find that there were still people—men—back in the 1840s and 50s who saw no problem with women going out and getting a degree in medicine,” Oakes said. 

One of these men, Dr. Orin Davis, founded the Central Medical School in Rochester. He was one of the first to admit women alongside men to study medicine. Because of his influence, women such as Drs. Fidelia Flagg Warren, Sarah Adamson and Ruth Edson Goddard Davis—the first women to get medical degrees after Blackwell—were able to attend medical school. 

After graduation, many of these women failed to find jobs due to prejudice against them at hospitals, forcing them into founding their own medical practices. This includes practices in towns not far from Geneseo, such as Cuba, Geneva, Dansville, York and Nunda. 

Additionally, outside of practicing medicine these first women physicians led rich and colored lives, often working with famous historical figures to bring about civil change. 

Oakes spoke of Dr. Harriet N. Austin, who was a friend of both Stanton and Anthony. Austin was the pioneer of the famous “American Costume,”—a shorter skirt worn over pants, which was a rebellious choice of outfit at the time—as popularized by Amelia Bloomer. Furthermore, Austin’s practice in Dansville is where famed Civil War nurse Clara Barton came to recover after the war. 

Douglass also worked with many of the early female physicians of Western New York who were often abolitionists. These include Douglass’ friend Dr. Theodosia Gilbert Chaplin and Dr. Lucretia Jackson, who ran the Underground Railroad station in Peterboro, N.Y. 

This vein of research is entirely new and there is still much to be learned about these amazing women. As a result, there is misinformation and omissions. 

“What I try to bring to this research is not just facts and figures, but the human story,” Oakes said. 

It is important to learn about pioneers of women in medicine, as “these women forged ahead despite difficulties, despite prejudices, despite—in many cases—physical violence toward women medical students,” Oakes said. 

In the face of the hardships that these early women doctors faced, they persevered. “They did not let it stop them from doing what they thought was the right thing—from what they thought was their right as female citizens of the United States,” Oakes said.