First Utah Woman Doctor

In the fall of 1874, Romania Pratt sold her most prized possession, a piano, for enough money to travel East.  Her destination – the Women’s Medical College of New York.

Such a journey was a daring undertaking back in that day and age for a sheltered Mormon wife and mother of five.  But Romania was determined to become a doctor.  The young woman felt a deep commitment to helping the sick and injured.  She also felt a personal responsibility to answer Church President Brigham Young’s command: “Women must come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.”

So Romania said goodbye to friends, family and to that beloved piano and embarked on a new career as a frontier physician.

Goodness knows, physicians were sorely needed on the western frontier!  In these early days, well-trained medical people were few and far between; supplies and sanitary facilities were almost non-existent and care for the sick and injured all too often meant amputations on the kitchen table and treatment with herbs, experimentation of quaint folk remedies. (Boiled toad was a common prescription for heart disease in the Old West, said writer Thomas Zeider in “Beehive History.” Owl soup was sometimes given for whooping cough, and the poor soul afflicted with diphtheria could expect an elixir of mashed snails.)

Romania B. Pratt was the first Mormon woman to leave Zion for professional medical training in the East.  But she wasn’t the first female to carry a doctor’s bag into the new western territory.  Three European-trained female physicians arrived in Deseret in the 1850s: Vigdis Holt, Netta Anna Cardon and Janet Hardie.

The lack of expertise that all too often prevailed in Deseret was a source of great worry to Brigham Young.  He and other Church leaders also decried the idea of male physicians ministering to the needs of women.  The very thought, states Ms. Waters in her research paper, carried the taint of adultery in their opinion.  Enough women doctors also had to be trained so they could serve their gender and preserve feminine modesty.

Thirty-four-year-old Romania Pratt, as we said earlier, blazed the way – and what a trailblazer she was!  Professors soon were pointing to her outstanding work as a model for other students to imitate.

The pioneering female physician also was the first woman allowed to intern at prestigious Bellevue Hospital.  And the next semester, she transferred to the highly-rated Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia where she met Ellis Shipp.

Ellis, a wife of Mormon polygamist Milford Shipp, also had left Utah in search of medical training.  The decision didn’t require the sale of a beloved piano, as in Romania’s case, but it still was fraught with difficulties.

Ellis and her friend Romania graduated with high honors.  Romania went on to specialize in diseases of the eye and is credited with performing he first cataract operation in Utah.

When the two arrived back in Zion, they found another female physician on the scene, Dr. Ellen Ferguson, who had moved to Utah after having practiced in London, Paris and elsewhere in the United States.  She was a competent physician, and highly regarded for her expertise in treatment of the nose, throat, lungs and heart.

It was Dr. Ferguson, most historians claim, who first suggested a Mormon community medical facility – the center that was to become known as Deseret Hospital.

All in all, 34 women practiced medicine during those first 50 years in the Beehive State, according to Ms. Waters.  They provided an alternative to male doctors, and improved the health of the Utah communities in which they worked.  They took Zion a long way down the road toward professionalism and away from unscientific folk remedies such as mashed snails.

It is important, however, not to downplay the role that the folk remedies and home medicine played in Utah’s past.  Home health manuals also were available to the pioneers and were extremely popular.

When it came to actual medicinal compounds, some settlers had traveled across the plains with well-stocked personal pharmacies, and possessed the basic knowledge for mixing compounds.  As early as 1859, according to Ms. Florance, druggists and chemists had moved into the territory and were advertising their wares; medicines also were available through catalogs from the East.  Almost every pioneer garden had a section planted with herbs.  And then there were the cures learned from Native Americans, treatments which often involved plants, roots or strange and exotic potions and poultices.

Why, even the kitchen cupboard was a source of medical wonders in the early days.  Cornmeal, sugar, flour, onions, mustard, many pioneer men and women claimed these common groceries were invested with miraculous curative powers.

The fact is: although doctors and scientific knowledge were scarce on the western frontier, all kinds of home healing techniques flourished, and nursing friends and family became so proficient at the art of hearthside healing that they exchanged services for cash.

As Romania Pratt and the new wave of professionals took over, however, unscientific medicine and practitioners dwindled.  Cure-all mustard plasters concocted in the kitchen gave way to compounds concocted in pharmaceutical laboratories.  Some folks today still swear by hot chicken soup to soothe colds, just like they did back in Great Granny’s time!

[Parley Parker Pratt Jr. & Descendants, Cora S. Winkler, 1992]

[transcribed and proofread by David Grow, Dec. 2006]

Return to the histories of Romania Bunnell