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Women in Medicine: 6 Pioneering Activists

It was once a great struggle for a woman to even be considered for a medical education in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. Only the strongest, most dedicated women managed to achieve a degree, and they deserve to be remembered for their efforts. These early pioneers in the medical field opened the doors for the many woman doctors who followed.

1. Ann Preston

Dr. Ann Preston (pictured above) was a teacher who worked to educate women about their own bodies. She always continued her own education, too, and worked as an apprentice to a doctor before applying to four different medical schools in Philadelphia, and was rejected—just like all the other female applicants. When the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850, Preston enrolled in its first class. She graduated a year and a half later, then became a professor at the school. Meanwhile, she founded the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and changed the name of the school to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. In 1866, she became Dean of the college, the first woman to hold the title. Preston then fought for the right of her students to attend clinics at various local hospitals just like male medical students. It was not an easy battle. In 1868, Preston’s students were allowed to observe a clinic at Blockley Hospital.

When the first women arrived, however, they were met by an angry demonstration. The male medical students shouted insults and threw paper, tinfoil and tobacco quids at the women. The female students remained composed and attended the clinic, but on their way out they were pelted with rocks.

It would not be the last time such behavior greeted the doctors-in-training. But Preston kept up her support of her medical students even as her own health failed. She died in 1872 and bequeathed her assets to the the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania to fund scholarships.

2. Mary Edwards Walker

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was the only woman in her medical school class in 1855. Her medical practice floundered because few people trusted a woman doctor. Walker volunteered her service to the Union Army, but was not allowed to enlist, so she served as a volunteer. She was not allowed to serve as a doctor, either, so she served as a nurse—at first. Walker ministered to the wounded at the First Battle of Bull Run and worked her way into the position of a field surgeon's assistant. She was awarded an army commission 1863, but was still technically designated as a civilian worker. Walker was taken by the Confederacy as a prisoner of war for several months in 1864 and was accused of being a spy. She continued to serve until the end of the war. In 1865 Walker became the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, for her efforts at the First Battle of Bull Run. After the war, she campaigned for women's rights, temperance, and even ran for political office—before women even had the right to vote.

3. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first black woman to earn a medical degree in the U.S. She was born in Delaware in 1833 and grew up in Pennsylvania. As an adult, Lee worked as a nurse in Boston by on-the-job training, as there were no nursing schools at the time. Her supervisors were impressed with her work and suggested she try medical school. Despite the references, it took eight years for a college to admit her. In 1860, she entered the New England Female Medical College and graduated in 1864. She then married Arthur Crumpler. After the Civil War, Dr. Crumpler moved to Richmond, Virginia, where she could serve the medical needs of recently freed slaves. She later wrote that Richmond was

“…a proper field for real missionary work, and one that would present ample opportunities to become acquainted with the diseases of women and children. During my stay there nearly every hour was improved in that sphere of labor. The last quarter of the year 1866, I was enabled . . . to have access each day to a very large number of the indigent, and others of different classes, in a population of over 30,000 colored."

Crumpler returned to Massachusetts four years later and opened her own practice. She wrote Book of Medical Discourses, which includes her biography, but mostly focuses on how women can meet the medical needs of their families. It was published in 1883. In spite of her place in history, there are no existing photographs of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler.

4. Mary Putnam Jacobi

In 1873, Harvard professor Edward Clarke published a book entitled Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance For Girls. Despite a promising title, what he meant by “a fair chance” was to discourage higher education for women because,

"There have been instances, and I have seen such, of females... graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married, and were sterile."

Clarke’s rationale was that a woman couldn’t menstruate and think at the same time, and trying to do so was dangerous. Therefore, keeping women out of colleges and universities was for their own good. Few took exception to Clarke’s opinions, but one who did was Mary Putnam Jacobi, a doctor, scientist, and extraordinary woman of her time. Jacobi earned a medical degree at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1864 (where she received her M.D. at age 22), then went on to study at France’s famous École de Médecine, where she was the first woman ever admitted. Dr. Jacobi objected to Clarke’s views, but knew that her opinion wouldn’t matter a bit. Instead, she used research. Jacobi gathered empirical data on real women, and presented her findings without emotion or personal opinion.

“There is nothing in the nature of menstruation to imply the necessity, or even the desirability, of rest.”

Jacobi’s work won awards and helped to break down barriers in women’s education.

5. Georgia E.L. Patton

Dr. Georgia E.L. Patton was the first black woman to be licensed as a doctor in the state of Tennessee. She was born into slavery in 1864, and became the only member of her family to graduate from high school. Her brother and sisters worked to help her pay for college, then she continued to the Meharry Medical Department of Central Tennessee College, where she earned her medical degree in 1893. Patton left immediately for Liberia as a medical missionary, where she served for two years despite her church’s refusal to fund the trip. Patton contracted tuberculosis on what she thought would be a temporary trip back to the U.S., and never fully regained her health. Still, she set up a private practice in Memphis, where she was the only black female doctor. Patton practiced there for a few years, married, and had two children who died in infancy. Patton was only 36 years old when she died in 1900.

6. Sara Josephine Baker

Dr. Sara Josephine Baker got her M.D. from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1898. Her private practice made so little money that she went to work for the City of New York as a medical inspector. Working with the poorest immigrants in the Hell’s Kitchen area, Baker became dedicated to preventative care. She knew that educating people on basic infant care, nutrition, and sanitation could save many lives and health care resources in the long run. Baker was appointed assistant commissioner of health for the city in 1907. She began programs that to provide New York residents with prenatal care, childcare classes, infant formula, baby clothes, vaccines, and milk. She took babies out of orphanages and put them into foster care, where they would receive individual attention, leading to a lower death rate. She was also instrumental in catching Mary Mallon, known a Typhoid Mary, twice. Dr. Baker became famous for getting results in public health, and in her later years was in demand to teach her methods in other states and in cities around the world.

This is the beginning of a series of posts on woman pioneers in medicine.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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