Utah’s Pioneer Women Doctors

by Claire Wilcox Noall

The Unique Urgency Which Led to the Study of Medicine Among Mormon Women

Into their pioneer Mormon background the lives of Utah’s early women doctors inevitably blend. In the far-spreading settlement of the vast Territory of Utah, large families were an infinite blessing. However, there were few doctors in this Land of Promise. Though certain midwives of the period have left records that reflect the inestimable worth of their long and patient service, most of them labored in the populous counties near the original colony.

Distance then had not been swallowed by time, and in remote districts, all too often dreadful suffering and even death resulted from the absence of both physician and practiced midwife.

And yet into the dry and bloodless heart of arid lands as well as into fertile valleys, the staunch-hearted people penetrated. Even after having converted barren ground into green fields they would once more pack their belongings into the deep cradles of their covered wagons and move again if the command came from Brigham Young.

This dynamic man combined vision with action. He was not content to limit the new stronghold to narrow boundaries. As he cried: “This is the place!” from his high vantage on the last steep slopes of the Wasatch, his inspired eyes must have seen far beyond the mountain-encircled valley at his feet. In the diversion of population and settlement there were strength, independence, and self-sufficiency, three of the most important phases of the great colonization.

And yet the farther from Salt Lake City that families settled, the greater the hazard of childbirth became. Mothers were fortunate in the outlying stakes if they were ministered to by another woman who had received any training at all in midwifery. Children were born under heartrending circumstances. At times, when a mother’s frightful agony lapsed into the silence of death, babies too were lost. The hour of travail was fraught with danger and the dread fever left many with incurable rheumatism.

Even so, no woman refused to go into the far and unknown places of the new Zion. Deep snow itself was no bar to moving if the order came when it lay piled upon the ground. Still no matter how harrowing the conditions which Mormon pioneer women faced, they all were grateful to their Father in heaven for the privilege of becoming mothers in Israel.

Brigham Young was not unmindful of the dangers to which they were subjected. Nor did he fail to realize that cholera infantum, whooping cough, and diphtheria, which at times were not even recognized as such, took their sad toll. He knew that woeful loss left grief and absence in their wake which were hard to assuage. His heart bled when he heard tales of pitiable cases, just as it swelled with pride when he visited the stakes of Zion and there beheld the fine healthy children and the happy women who survived to live their wholesome, saintly, and religious way of life. And the amazing aspect of those pioneer days was not that so many lives were lost from disease and childbirth as it was that so many women studied to curtail its ravages.

From the first, Brigham Young did everything within his power to minimize suffering and increase health. Within a year after the arrival of the Pioneers, while they were still living in the old walled Fort, he called Dr. Willard Richards and his wife, Hannah, an English nurse, to teach women practical nursing, midwifery, and care of children. But the scope of this couple was limited—they lived in Salt Lake City; the Territory was measureless.

And a quarter of a century passed before the first woman studied medicine. It was 1873 when Romania Bunnell Pratt set out to attend the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia.

Brigham Young had asked Heber John Richards, Willard’s son, to become one of Utah’s first men physicians. The request was not much to this young man’s liking, since he had intended to become a surveyor, but he deferred to President Young’s wishes, and studied for the profession.

Now Brigham Young proposed to overcome distance in behalf of motherhood. It was part of his design that Romania B. Pratt should return to Utah and teach other women to serve competently and with scientific cleanliness in cases of childbirth. Though some of them lived in stakes that were hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City, “sisters” were to come to her from their own localities for training in mid-wifery. They could return to their homes with a portion of her vital knowledge as their own, and life could be saved. President Young saw this. His vision resulted in the most remarkable flowering of medicine among women during the second quarter century of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the large territory about it, that ever has existed in any one region on the face of the earth.

It almost seems as if the Halls of Medicine had been opened to welcome these very women.

In 1847—significantly coincidental year—Elizabeth Blackwell pioneered her way into a regular school of medicine. She was the first woman in the world to be graduated from such a university—a man’s—Geneva Medical College of New York! After ridicule, scorn, and belittling in other places this persistent, English-born but American-bred woman was admitted to this college because the student personnel was so boisterous and rowdy that the young men thought her presence would prove hugely amusing. They put the matter to the vote. After coercing the only dissenting member they decided to let her enroll, looking forward to her admission with vulgar anticipation. But a strange hush came over their auditorium when she first entered it. However, no blush mounted to her cheek—there was no cause. She brought dignity into chaos, and was graduated at the head of her class.

And then … the Women’s Medical College at Philadelphia was established. Women came to it from the four quarters of the globe, but no concentration of women in medicine ever occurred proportionately to equal the number of women doctors among the pioneers of Utah.

Most of these women led lives of great activity both before and after studying medicine. Many of them were mothers of several children before they became doctors; most of them bore children while they were practicing. Elvira Stevens Barney filled a mission and taught school in the Hawaiian Islands before she studied. All of them—because there was hardly a live-minded woman in Utah who did not—took active interest in woman suffrage, and later two of them became members of the state legislature.

Among those who followed Dr. Pratt in the profession were Ellis R. Shipp, Martha Hughes Paul Cannon, Margaret C. Shipp Roberts, Mary Minor Green, Emma Atkins, Mary Emma Van Schoonhoven, and Jane M. Skolfield.

Belle Anderson Gemmell and Justine Anderson McIntyre, daughters of Dr. W. F. Anderson, were non-Mormons who left pioneer Utah to return with medical degrees.

Martha Hughes, as she was then known, and Emma Atkins were the most youthful of the group. They made up their minds when they were girls to follow the profession. Martha had a brilliant career, but Dr. Atkins, an excellent student of Dr. Pratt’s and one who was inspired by her to become a doctor, went to Nephi to practice, where she met with an early and tragic death.

Undoubtedly there is no more colorful page in all history than that which is illumined by this group of Mormon women who bore the title, Doctor of Medicine. But even they were preceded in Salt Lake City by one other.
In one of the earliest numbers of The Women’s Exponent, a distinguished magazine and for many years the only woman’s periodical between Boston and Portland, Oregon, an interesting advertisement appeared. Mrs. Ellen B. Ferguson, M. D., a convert of Elder Orson F. Whitney’s, announced herself as a specialist in the diseases of women. Extremely intellectual and highly cultivated, she taught drawing, elocution, and piano lessons in addition to her practice of medicine. She also was interested in woman suffrage. A great traveler, she expounded Mormonism wherever she went; and she mingled among America’s most brilliant leaders in the feminist movement. However, there were certain characteristics which distinguished Dr. Ferguson as being some-what different from the sturdy type of true pioneer woman doctor of Utah. The accomplished Dr. Ferguson, despite her tremendous loyalty to the Church during a large part of her life, occupied a place almost by herself in the community.

Nearly all of Utah’s women doctors were great travelers; and they too were international in their outlook. Many of them were strong-minded, highly opinionated, forceful women. Some were successful in business; a few of them had more knowledge and ideas than friends, but in the hearts of those friends who were their own, true admiration ruled. And if, in others, their faults had not been so few, how could their goodness have been so great? Professional jealousy and over-ambition were largely ruled from their lives. Some of them were great women—truly great. They could not have fallen short of this high standard had they done nothing more than disseminate the knowledge of midwifery in the saintly way in which they carried on.

Their presence in the mereless territory of the new Zion was almost like the unseen hand of God, who ministers in His own divine way to those whose need is great. Their influence was carried so far by those who came to them for study. With utter simplicity of heart and manner, but with sublime faith in the good that their disciples could do, Utah’s pioneer women doctors imparted their knowledge to their student classes. And through the dark hours of night as well as the long, busy days of their practice, they—who were often less able to stand upon their feet than their patients themselves—ministered to the sick, the unfortunate, and the needy.

Part One
Romania B. Pratt

For what a bountiful harvest Brigham Young sowed when he set apart Romania Bunnell Pratt to study medicine! … Small of stature, irregular in feature, brown-haired, brilliant-eyed, Romania Pratt sat beside her husband in the Salt Lake Tabernacle at a Conference meeting, 1873, and heard the voice of Brigham Young, her prophet-leader, as it rang through the vast hall: “From fertile lands we came to these sterile plains amid the mountains …” he said. Brigham Young was aging now, but there was work yet for him to do. In this gathering he had a special message for the sisters. “If some women had the privilege of studying they would make as good mathematicians as any man. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes and raise babies, but that they should study law … or physic …”

Physic! Romania’s spirit was at once host to the thought. Her heart responded within her at the very suggestion that women could prepare themselves for a life of medicine. How well she would like to be a doctor!

But how much there was to interfere with that course! Could it be accomplished? she asked herself as she sat tense and alert for every word that might follow this momentous statement. Suddenly a great well of silence opened within her. She herself had so recently gone through the valley of the shadow to bear her fifth son, she seemed very close to the import of this meeting. In her memory the ordeal of travail was still clear. Her whole being was tuned to this message, to the remarkable statements that were issuing from the lips of this inspired man: “The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains …”

Why Romania saw herself in the light of the chosen, she did not know. But it seemed to her as though Brigham Young had already released her from the usual path of life to minister at the bedside of the sick.

The usual path of life! Hers was one of responsibility. … She had five little boys; the eldest was entering his teens … but the youngest was an infant. Had she lost her reason to think of herself in this light? “No!” she said.

And then her thoughts ran on: “The man to whom I am listening does not speak from his heart alone. As surely as the river of Galilee flows from the heights into the blue lake of the plain below, the words of Brigham Young are flowing from a divine source through my being. I shall study medicine, and I will not delay! …”

“Parley,” she said that night after they had talked the matter over in their home, “It is such a tremendous step. My baby. …”

But Parley encouraged Romania to pursue this course.

There was a special mission that he himself was most desirous of performing. His father, the Apostle Parley P. Pratt, had written his autobiography, and had dedicated a large sum of money to its publication. Parley had been living for the day when he could fulfill this wish. And now, strangely enough he saw both himself and his wife carrying into effect their great desires.

The baby stirred. His cry was hardly past that of an infant’s. It went straight to Romania’s heart. But even as the baby wailed, Romania recalled her mother’s struggle for the sake of the Gospel. And she knew that this great woman would help her to further its cause. Surely, Esther would care for all of her little boys, and no harm would befall the baby.

She recalled other times when her mother’s role had indeed been heroic. Swiftly the memories of a lifetime flashed before her. And she thought of the earliest of them all as the solemn voice of her father came back to her from the close of one momentous day:

“Esther, is it done?”

“Yes, Luther, it is. …” His wife had gone down into the waters of baptism to become a despised Mormon.

Why the tones were hushed the baby Manie did not know. Three years of life were not enough to tell her that it was an awesome deed for a woman to take such a step in advance of her husband, nor why the harmony that came to their home when her father’s immersion followed was also reefed about with terrific anxiety. But the Bunnells traveled the badgered course of other Mormons in moving from settlement to settlement.

Once again the temple under construction in Nauvoo came before Romania’s eyes. She could see the glistening white font supported by the twelve oxen. “Marble font! White marble oxen!”

Again, as she sat before the fire in the tiny house with Parley, the sound of martial music rang through her ears. She was fired with the playing of the flutes as she had been when the Mormon Battalion marched from Winter Quarters on their dire way to Mexico.

Romania did not see those tattered men in the lacerating condition of their return. Had she done so her spirit would have been marked also with the anguish of their suffering—her heart was always open to compassion.

Her parents longed to gather with the Saints in Utah, but they were forced to return to the banks of the Mississippi. Romania was their only living child. Esther was expecting another baby, and no chance could be taken with her health. Yet, even after the little Josephine was born, the Bunnells could not leave for the West. They had no money. Reluctantly, they returned to the land of Luther’s fathers in Ohio. Here, two sons were born.
At last, with one desperate hope of making the migration possible, Luther left his family and went to the gold fields of California to try for the stake that would make possible their dreams.

He found his gold; his pay-dirt glittered with it. But his family never saw him again. He died of fever among his diggings. The recollection of the years that followed brought the tears now to Romania’s eyes. Esther sacrificed for her during that period of her life. Luther had cached his treasure so well nothing could be learned of it. But poverty did not deter Romania’s attendance at a female seminary in Indiana where the family had moved.

It came to Romania in this moment how fortunate it was that she had received her education. Of what avail would her desire for a life of medicine be without those years in the Seminary?

Curiously enough, and though years passed, a male relative eventually found Luther’s treasure. Had the window’s guardian prevailed, however, she would have taken none of it to Utah. “The Mormons themselves will be the first to rob you of it,” he had said. But no protest could daunt the fervor that lived in Esther Bunnell’s breast. Purchasing an outfit, she, with her four children, commenced the exodus to the Valley in 1855. Romania was sixteen years old.

There were many admirers in Indiana with whom she had to part. She remembered with a smile how happy her mother had been to get her away from “Babylon,” where her blooming womanhood was an attraction to the young men of her acquaintance. Romania had tingled with delight at the very thought of seeing the “Promised Land.” The trek was one of endless pleasure to her. Her heart sang with anticipation every mile of the way. But no disappointment ever equalled the one that assailed her when she reached the brow of Little Mountain. As she looked out over the high-walled valley, the vision failed to impress her with its glory. Where was the city of shining towers and flashing metallic cupolas of which she had dreamed? When she learned that the few black splotches on the plain far below represented the City of Zion, she thought that she did not know what Zion meant. But faith whispered, and the beauty of baptism comforted her.

Privation followed the arrival of the Bunnells. To add to the hardship of becoming established, famine was upon the land. The crickets descended; the streams themselves were thirsty. But her family was not entirely without blessings. She was chosen to teach in Brigham Young’s school.

“I’ll go to President Young and ask him for his blessing now,” she thought. “As he set me apart then, he will again. … Where the money will come from I do not know. But I must have faith. … I must have faith. …”

Without foreseeing its result. Mother Esther Bunnell had already taken one step for the cause of Romania’s going away. Not long after she and her family reached the Valley, she traveled all the way to St. Louis by ox team to purchase a piano for her two daughters. By the same tedious method she returned, bringing a massive oblong instrument of ebony and excellent workmanship with her. Josephine did not play well, but Romania was a good musician, and the fine-toned instrument became her own when Josephine married and moved to Indiana.
Suddenly it seemed to Romania as if her heart was wrenched wide open with the force of the decision that came to her. “The piano!” she said. “I’ll sell it. We’ll need every dollar that we can lay our hands on. No matter what has been set aside to publish the book, we’ll need more money for my work.”

It took months to prepare for the years that were to be spent away from home, but Romania was resolute, and one day she said to her husband, “Parley, the house. …”

“Yes, Romania, the house. …”

That, too, was sold and a farm also, which had been part of Parley’s inheritance. They had to increase their funds to the utmost. Everything that would bring any money at all went for the dual enterprise. But there was another parting that was even more poignant than these when the day for departure came. Romania took her nine-months-old baby from her breast and placed him in her mother’s arms. She and Parley left for the train.

Little Parley, fourteen years of age, had gone to Ogden to work in a broom factory. He must add his mite to this great cause; he would send his grandmother Bunnell what he could to help with the care of the four little brothers. Esther had an orchard, and there was a garden where she raised strawberries. Through diligent care both brought her some income. The lads should not go hungry while their parents were away.

Romania entered the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia. She had a terrific struggle during her first semester. All that she could do was to get her bearings—and pray for guidance.

Her second term, however, told a different story. She spent the summer as a private student, toiling while her classmates enjoyed their holidays. She even became the first woman to enroll in Bellevue College, New York. In the fall those students at Philadelphia who had before derided her were compelled to yield their admiration.
Although Romania—individualist that she was—had left to study medicine presumably for the sole purpose of midwifery, she specialized in the study of the eye and ear. But her funds were running dangerously low, and continued schooling looked doubtful. Unable to remain longer in Philadelphia she boarded the train for Utah, almost penniless.

When she arrived she was greeted with acclaim. Almost at once she was made president of the Retrenchment Society, fore-runner of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association. This society was organized by Brigham Young to encourage simplicity in dress. She was the very person to take the lead in this endeavor. But did not her President realize that she herself was beset with anxiety? That she could see but vaguely the way to accomplish the mission on which she had already embarked? She might have known that it was not for him to see her profession cut short. He who so long ago created projects where men might earn their bread could certainly visualize a plan to get her through school. The Relief Society, spurred on by Zina D. Young, Eliza R. Snow and others, raised money for her to continue.

Had the great mosaicist seen the changes that would result from this woman’s completion of her work he still would not have altered his course. That the lines of personality were chiseled more deeply, that shadows were lengthened and high lights were brightened in shifting the pattern of a life, were merely by-products of a great and necessary result.

Two more years of study were lightened for Romania by remarkable experiences at different hospitals and in clinical research in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. A great stroke of fortune came to her when she was once more deeply troubled over the lack of money. She was required to meet the expenses for a term of training at a lying-in hospital, but she had no resources for the purpose. A friend who had paid for one in Boston was called away. She transferred the privilege of her entrance to Dr. Pratt.

But even the great triumph of Romania’s graduation was shadowed by this dreadful problem. It was June, 1877, when she received her diploma. She stood upon the platform clothed in cap and gown, thirty-eight years old, and on the verge of a new life. Before she stepped over the boundary, however, she had one more case of financial stringency to overcome. How was she to get home? Truly, she was at a loss. But Josephine, her sister, who lived in Indiana, was expecting a baby. Her husband offered to pay Romania’s expenses home if she would serve as attending physician. Again Romania felt that the hand of destiny had touched her shoulder. … This offer was good pay. Midwives in Utah were receiving three dollars a case!

At this high moment of her life—the occasion of her first case in her own right—another deeply arresting religious experience came to her. At Clifton, New York, where she stopped on the way to Indiana, the manager of her hotel offered to take her with his other guests as a tourist to see the Hill Cumorah. But she—a tourist? She who had missed being sent to Europe as student representative from the lying-in hospital in Boston because, while there, she had ardently defended her religion? Not Romania!

She visited the sacred hill as one who belonged to its tradition. In her heart Cumorah was enshrined as the place where the Angel Moroni had delivered the plates of beaten gold into the hands of Joseph Smith, the prophet. To her this experience was almost of as great significance as the projected trip abroad would have been. It outshone all of the precariousness through which she had passed on her way to graduation.

But oh, what a symbol for new life in the far-away “Valley” that graduation was! It was the beginning of the epoch of the West with the caduceus in woman’s hand. …

After less than two years of practice Dr. Romania returned to New York for further specialization in her chosen field. But this was the last time she left Utah while her mother lived. After leaving Josephine with her baby in her arms, she could hardly wait to see her mother and her sons while the train made its laggard way to Utah. Her eyes softened with maternal love at the thought of seeing her babies. But even her youngest boys were no longer babies when she returned. Esther’s house was silent when she entered it. Romania ran to the orchard—that same orchard which had helped to feed her boys. “Children! Mother!” she cried. But the smallest child greeted her as a complete stranger. It was hard to allay that pang.

For thirty years she was one of the chief figures in Utah’s medical history. Her career was not entirely to the satisfaction of the male fraternity. The struggle which all of the women doctors of Utah went through to gain the respect of the men was indeed comparable to the long effort of their educational achievement. “How is Dr. P.? Teaching her Sunday School class?” one of them would invariably ask if he found her in obstetrical session with her following.

Still she was never refused assistance by the men if she asked for it in difficult operative cases. She removed diseased eyes; she used the knife upon mastoids, and she subdued other dreadful scourges. She delivered thousands of babies, and she corrected as many cases of defective vision in her well-equipped office in the Godbe-Pitts building. She sponsored the valiant work of the Deseret Hospital; and she became its resident physician. But never once was this professional work unaccompanied by the religious theme of her life. That resisted all change. For years she was assistant general secretary to the Relief Society. Later she was a member of the organization’s General Board.

She loved good clothes, and she wore fine apparel when she could. She had learned the joy of homage; a good appearance was part of that pleasure. But neither had she forgotten the promptings of a kindly heart. To the needy she was always helpful. She was generous to her sons, whose own lives had been changed through this new life of hers. When she went into residence at the Deseret hospital, the grandmother again cared for them. In turn, Romania gave her the most tender, loving care throughout Esther’s aging years. Romania was never too tired, even after working day and night, to answer her mother’s bedridden greeting with fine cheer when she entered the house.

“Manie! Manie …” Esther would call.

“Yes, dear. …”

“Can you come here?”

Manie went to give her the loving caress which she needed, and to perform some small service which was invariably requested. Esther was blind, and over ninety years old.

And now into Romania’s life came the last great change. She became the third wife of Charles W. Penrose, an Apostle, later a member of the First Presidency of the Church. Through the shifting of the mosaic a new pattern had emerged. The final picture of her life was of magnificent design. Her outlook was broadened by half a world. Some time after their marriage, Dr. Pratt Penrose accompanied her husband to England, where he presided over the British and European missions.

Always certain that Mormonism represented the true and everlasting Gospel of Christ, she was uncompromising toward the practices of others. She gloried in the cathedrals of Germany architecturally, but she deplored the worship that went on within those beautiful buildings. Seated at the window of her hotel opposite the Dom, she wrote:

“I sat long gazing on this grand structure, and wondered when the mummery which is used in the name of religion would be stilled and the sublime structure dedicated to the true and living God.”
And again: “… It is an actual positive truth that the Christians, so-called, worship an unknown God, just as much as they did in Paul’s day, and the only difference between them and the heathen is they have nothing in their mind’s eye, while the heathen look upon a tangible idol.”

But she had always been highspirited, and, at times, uncompromising in her attitude. In her rounds at the Deseret Hospital, she had been kindness itself to one patient, while to a sufferer in the very next bed she was sometimes curt and sharp-spoken.

Even now, during this European experience, hers was not the heart for universal sympathy, nor the mind for wide tolerance—the fire of enthusiasm, the fearlessness of decision distinguished her. But now indeed her religion was coupled with a world movement!

She was fervent in the cause of equal suffrage. Who could remain indifferent to this great question when associated with Emmeline B. Wells?—and Dr. Romania had been so associated. But, had it not been for the dignity of her professional calling, she might not have played the active part in suffrage gatherings which now became her privilege. At no meeting of this kind in America had a Mormon woman ever been allowed to speak.

The question of polygamy was too sore a point. But when Dr. Penrose was afforded the opportunity in Europe she expressed herself fearlessly. At the International Suffrage Alliance in Amsterdam, and in London two years later, she did not hesitate to invoke religious testimony.

There she stood, gazing into the countenances of this vast audience. Her brown eyes were sparkling—age had not dimmed them. Her small figure was plumped by the years, but she still was heroic and commanding.

After speaking of political offices for which women were especially adapted, she said, “… This (the fortuitous use of the ballot) has been exemplified in the workings of equal suffrage in my own community, and the universal acceptance of this righteous equality cannot fail to bring to the world greater freedom, higher justice, and closer union and advancement in everything that will elevate humanity, and bring them to that condition of harmony, fraternity and peace, foreseen by the prophets … of ancient and modern times. …”

The prophets … of modern times! To speak so in such a gathering was truly a courageous act.

But Romania loved her religion above any earthly way of life. It comforted her when near-blindness came upon her after she passed her ninety-second birthday. She was past her ninety-third when the mists of death surrounded her.

But, because she had pursued the path of righteousness within the close of her faith, because she was at times intolerant, because hers was not the heart for universal sympathy, who can say that she did not worship the Most High God? That she did not sense the spirit of universal love? In the first flush of wifehood she had used the exquisite craft of her fingers to embroider tiny garments in anticipation of the holy joy of motherhood; on her mission abroad she served long and diligently for the poor; as a doctor she devoted her fine skill not only to the cause of suffering in her own city, but to her sisterhood as a whole; as a traveler she reveled in the glory of nature; in the seas of molten gold whose tide washed the shores of the North Cape, “where the midnight sun did not sink but rose to shine again…”

[Improvement Era, 1939]


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