Maine’s first female physicians, like their national counterparts, were a plucky, persevering lot who had to overcome and break down walls of prejudice that favored traditional male doctors to achieve equality in the medical field.
Women faced attitudes such as this one expressed by Dr. Horatio R. Storer, who lived from 1830 to 1922: “Although women make the best nurses, they do not inspire confidence as doctors since their judgment varies from month to month.”
While women campaigned to win the right to vote and to outlaw alcoholic beverages, they also were knocking on the doors of the nation’s medical schools, demanding a chance for equal opportunities as doctors.
Annette Vance Dorey, a writer and historical researcher from Lewiston, has just completed a year-long study of the first female doctors in Maine, from the 1850s to 1920. She published her findings in June in a book, “‘Miss Dr. Lucy’ and Maine’s Pioneering Female Physicians.”
Dorey provides biographical sketches, many with photos, of 184 female doctors with ties to Maine.
“I included anybody who people called a doctor,” Dorey said. “I wanted to paint with a really broad brush … This is a huge piece of history that nobody cared about. It needed to be done.”
Dorey will give a talk sponsored by the Kennebec Historical Society on “Maine’s Pioneering Female Physicians” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the lecture hall at Augusta City Center. Refreshments will follow the free presentation in the Fort Western Room.
Dorey says she is a lifelong learner whose career has taken her from the Midwest to Canada to New England. She was a professor of teacher education and human development at the University of New Brunswick. She has published two other books — one on the quest for perfect childhood health and the other on Maine mothers who murdered their own children and served time at the Maine State Prison.
She said she came across five women in her physician research who were addressed as “Miss Dr. Lucy,” which she included in the title of her book. “I find that amazing and it amazes other people, too,” Dorey said.
Maine women had limited choices at first in trying to get a medical education. Dorey said the Maine Medical School at Bowdoin College never allowed in women students. It closed in the early part of the 20th century.
She said there was an Eclectic Medical School of Maine in Lewiston from 1881 to 1888. This college did allow women students. “In eclectic medicine, they chose what they felt were the best practices from various disciplines.”
“I spent a lot of time with old newspapers,” Dorey said. “I think people were easily influenced by fly-by-night things that claimed to cure anything.”
Dorey said, “Women had to fight to get into medical schools. Women would apply at one school and get rejected. Other schools let them sit in on lectures, but they couldn’t take exams. Several women students would get together and start medical schools just for women.
“I was really impressed by how active women were,” Dorey said. “This was a civil rights struggle. They were also interested in getting the vote for women.”
In 1919, Congress finally approved the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and in 1920, three-quarters of the state legislatures ratified it, granting American women full voting rights.
Some of the earliest female physicians in Maine were “botanic healers” in Shaker societies who used herbs in their medicines.
Some of the female doctors’ stories stand out above the rest. One of these was Alice M. Farnham-Leader, M.D., who lived from 1862 to 1944. She had a practice in Lewiston with her husband, Dr. John Leader. He died in 1900 following an affliction of the ear.
At the age of 46, Farnham-Leader took her second ocean voyage, departing Southampton, England, for New York on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic on April 10, 1912. She and nine male doctors were among the survivors of Titanic’s sinking on April 14.
A story about Farnham-Leader in the Lewiston Evening Journal said, “Being a woman of great presence of mind, courage and an ability to keep cool under trying circumstances, old friends feel that she was the commanding spirit in the woman-manned lifeboat, which swung away from the side of the sinking liner at 12:40 a.m. last Monday morning and made its way to the Carpathia.”
In 1922 in Saco, just two years after women were granted the right to vote, Dr. Laura Black Stickney ran for mayor. “I fail to understand why I cannot fill the office as well as a man,” she wrote in a campaign article.
Stickney later was elected city physician and held that post for six years.
Her husband was a successful architect. She ran the state’s first homeopathic hospital were she died in May 1961 at the age of 81 after suffering a stroke.
In a chapter on “Rural Maine Physicians,” Dorey writes of the life of Dr. Laura Preble of West Enfield (1869-1945) who was the only woman to join 33 men in a manhunt in January 1913 chasing the assassin who had killed the constable of Passadumkeag.
Preble drove her own sleigh and carried her own rifle. She arrived on the scene five minutes after two men had caught up with the killer and he had attempted to take his own life by putting a bullet in his skull. The doctor ministered to the criminal until he expired a couple of hours later.
Ida Miller was chief physician at the community called Shiloh in Durham. She oversaw a smallpox outbreak in December 1902 and a diphtheria quarantine in January 1903.
Dr. Aurelia Springer of Lewiston (1836-1918) had a lively and beloved career. She was the only woman among 15 residents of Lewiston and Auburn in 1906 who owned automobiles.
She had the same doctor’s office on Lisbon Street during a career that spanned four decades. Her patients were the city’s laborers — its mill workers and shoe workers.
The Lewiston Evening Journal wrote of Dr. Springer in 1905, “‘Dr. Springer does me as much good as her medicine,’ we have heard her patients say. She is strong, yet sympathetic — a brisk breeze on a sunshiny day.”
Dorey said of her books, “I did it in just under a year. I worked on it day and night. I was driven.”