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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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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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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