Mary Ellen Snodgrass
Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old Westby Chris Enss
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"No women need apply." Western towns looking for a local doctor during the frontier era often concluded their advertisements in just that manner. Yet apply they did. And in small towns all over the west, highly trained women from medical colleges in the East took on the post of local doctor to great acclaim. These women changed the lives of the patients they came in contact with, as well as their own lives, and helped write the history of the West. In this new book, author Chris Enss offers a glimpse into the fascinating lives of ten of these amazing women.
Mary Ellen Snodgrass
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The Doctor Wore PetticoatsWomen Physicians of the Old West
By Enss, Chris
FalconCopyright © 2006 Enss, Chris
All right reserved.
Eliza Cook: Nevada's First Woman Doctor
Prejudice against women in medicine flourished in 19th Century America. "We hope never to see the day", declared a medical journal of 1867, "when female character shall be so completely unsexed, as to fit it for the disgusting duties which imperatively devolve upon one who would attain proficiency, or even respectability, in the healing art." In other words, doctoring was man's work, too nasty and too intimate for the delicate sensibilities of true womanhood. Even if a woman was thick-skinned, resourceful and persistent enough to earn a degree, people still doubted her capabilities. A woman doctor, even more than a man, had to prove herself, and after she did, most of her practice was confined to women patients.
By the late 1800s, a fair number of women were entering the medical arena in the West, but they had a long way to go before they could overcome the prejudice of their male counterparts. Female students at Johns Hopkins could examine men only from the neck up. The hostility directed at "unnatural" women invading this male realm was palpable, ranging from hissing and curses to outright sabotage.
In the 1890s Dr. M. Cary Thomas requested permission to attend a class at johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. She dared to tread where no other woman had been allowed. She was accepted only on thecondition that she sit behind a screen. Later Dr. Thomas became president of Bryn Mawr College.
Dr. Eliza Cook also dared to walk the path of prejudice to enter a "man's field." Eliza became Nevada's first woman doctor in 1884, and she successfully practiced medicine in Carson Valley for over 40 years.
Eliza Cook was born on February 5, 1856, in Salt Lake City and moved to the Carson Valley with her mother and sister in 1870. They lived with Eliza's uncle who had settled near Sheridan.When her mother died, Eliza, who had always been interested in medicine, became a nurse to Dr. H. H. Smith of Genoa. He was so impressed with the young woman's skill and ability in the care of the ill that he encouraged her to study medicine. Eliza became his assistant as well as his student, and, with the doctor's help, she was accepted at the Cooper School of Medicine in San Francisco. The college later became part of Stanford University.
In 1884, at the age of 28, Eliza received her medical degree. She had completed the customary two years of study required at that time and returned home to practice.
Doctors were scarce in the 1800s, especially in the large sprawling Carson Valley where freezing winter storms frequently pounded the Sierra. The erect figure of Dr. Cook, and her black buggy, soon became a welcome sight throughout the area. No matter how
late the hour or how far she had travel, the dedicated doctor answered the call to attend the needs of the ill and injured. She traveled ice roads, fought blizzards, and crossed flooded rivers to complete her rounds and care for her patients. Late at night, returning home cold and weary, Eliza could always tell the time by the lights shining in the windows of the various ranches in the valley. She had traveled the
area so many times that she knew the habits of each family.
On many occasions, Dr. Cook was summoned by a frantic husband to deliver a baby. When she had completed her professional duties Eliza would return each day for two weeks to bathe the child(she loved babies) and care for the mother. In many instances, Eliza would also help the family by cooking and cleaning until the mother could assume the household chores.
Eliza was a tall, slender woman with dark hair pulled severely back from her intelligent, pretty face. She wore long black coats and dressed with high-stemmed collars adorned by a simple brooch. She called her patients by their first names and was considered a lady who "went along with the times." Eliza often frowned on girls wearing socks instead of stockings, but would shrug her shoulders and say "things change." She was always proper, and when dancing, she was careful to keep a "safe distance" from her partner.
Although Eliza often appeared severe and professional, she was
a warm, kind, dedicated person. She was loved by all and affectionately called "Auntie" by her devoted nieces and nephews, as well as the other local children. Many times a sick child would be frightened at the sight of Eliza's dark apparel and black buggy. In order to dispel this fear, Eliza would bake cookies and take them to the children she treated.
Dr. Cook never married; however, she was considered a wonderful homemaker. Her seven-room house, near Mottsville, was set against the backdrop of the Sierra. The large kitchen was the focal point for entertainment.
There she cooked fine food on a tiny three-foot woodstove with an
oven that opened on both sides. Dr. Cook had a special cup without handles that she would hold to warm her hands after a cold day of caring for the ill.
Eliza had a deep love of nature and growing things. Her home was surrounded by lovely flowers and behind it there was a large apple orchard that she irrigated and cared for herself. In the autumn the scent of apples stored in her cool pantry filled the air. She made delicious applesauce, apple butter, and preserves that were delivered to her patients and friends. Eliza also crocheted, tatted, and made exquisite lace creations that are carefully wrapped and lovingly kept at the home of her great-grand niece in Gardnerville.
As well as an expert physician, she was also a pharmacist. Dr. Cook set broken limbs with splints she made herself and skillfully prepared prescriptions on a little apothecary scale. It was kept on a table in her dining room where she measured the exact dose of medicinal powders. She would wrap the medication in a small piece of white tissue approximately 4 inches by 5 inches and fold it to an oblong size encasing the powders.
Each dose was numbered, then placed in an envelope with the
patient's name, date, and instructions for dispensing. Members of the family saved tissue paper for her home-operated pharmacy. Each piece was carefully sterilized with dry heat and cut to the required size. Eliza was extremely well-read and traveled extensively during her lifetime. She gave frequent lectures and was a respected speaker as well as dedicated doctor. Although Eliza was disciplined and stern in her profession, she was always sympathetic with young people. She would spend hours helping them find out who they were and stressed the importance of doing what they enjoyed. Her many deeds inspired others to become involved in medicine.
In 1894 Eliza Cook became an ardent member of the woman's suffrage movement. In addition to her already heavy schedule, she managed to actively support women's rights, finding the time to lecture and to circulate petitions. Dr. Cook strongly believed there were many injustices in the social system and worked hard to help overcome them.
Eliza practiced medicine for over 40 years in the Carson Valley. In her last years of caring for patients, Eliza put her horse and buggy away and started driving a Model T. She retired in the late 1920s, and many of the babies she delivered during her career still live in the valley.
Death for Dr. Eliza Cook was met with her usual acceptance of life. She passed away quietly, in 1947, at age 91, at home in her own bed. She must have had a premonition that her time was near. Her home was in order and her hands were peacefully folded upon her breast.
Excerpted from The Doctor Wore Petticoats by Enss, Chris Copyright © 2006 by Enss, Chris. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Chris Enss is the coauthor of Gilded Girls, With Great Hope, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Happy Trails, and The Cowboy and the Senorita. She is also an award-winning screenwriter.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The Doctors Wore Petticoats is an inspirational book about female physicians in the Old West. It is well researched and well written. I give it my highest recommendation.
This free, non-fiction, 100 page book offers an insight on how hard it was for women to become doctors during the 1800's. This book includes the biography of several of these women practicing medicine in the western part of the United States. Pictures are included, as are some popular, but useless home remedies of this time frame. Some Native American customs and folk lore are also described. This book was perfectly edited and very well written. I found it fascinating and really enjoyed it. For readers, ages 12 and up. AD
The stories would have been very good if there had been more to them. They were too short and too general. No substance. Would have been better to have fewer stories and more detail.