National Women Physician’s Day

by Michelle Schulten
February 3, 2024

This day, February 3 is celebrated on Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s birthday. She was the first woman in U.S. history to receive a medical degree in 1843.

After Dr. Blackwell received her degree she wrote the first thesis in a medical journal written by a female, on typhoid fever, published in 1849, in the “Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review”. Elizabeth, her sister Emily Blackwell – the second woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree, and Marie Zakrzewska – the third woman to attain a medical degree in the U.S., founded the New York Dispensary for Poor Women and Children in 1853. In 1857 it was reopened as the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children. It is still open today although in a slightly different location and under a different name. Elizabeth gave lectures about educating girls, organized nurses during the American Civil War, developed a medical school curriculum for women, and instituted clinical work for women in the medical field. She was active in social reform in the U.S. as well as Britain. She died after complications from a fall down a flight of stairs in Scotland after moving back to Britain where she had been born. She died May 31, 1910.

Dr. Blackwell’s pioneering journey into the men’s world of medicine broke down the walls for many women to be female doctors that broke down barriers of their own, right here in Colorado and the early settlements in Denver, the mining towns, and the communities near Conifer. The most famous of those female doctors are:

  • Dr. Justina Ford – Dr. Ford was not only a woman doctor in a growing Denver during the early 20th century, but also the first African-American female doctor in the U.S. She came to Denver and started practicing medicine in 1902, in a home in the Five Points neighborhood. She was unable to get medical privileges in any of the hospitals in Denver, but that didn’t stop her from practicing medicine out of her two-story, brick home at 2335 Arapahoe Street in Denver for 50 years. She birthed 7,000 babies during her career, many still pride themselves by being part of the “Justina Baby Club”, one of those babies is my own grandfather’s brother. She practiced until her death on October 14, 1952, at the age of 81. There is a bronze statue of her at the downtown Denver light rail station and in 1985 she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. If you would like to learn more about Dr. Justina Ford, there are many books available about her life and time in Denver. Her home was moved to 3091 California Street and is now the home of the Black American West Museum.
  • Dr. Florence Sabin (1871-1953) – Dr. Sabin was born in Central City and moved with her family when she was a small girl to Denver. At age 7 her mother died and she and her sister were sent to Wolfe Hall, a boarding school in Denver. After that she and her sister were sent to live with an uncle in Chicago attending a private school. Following that move she then moved to Vermont and then on to Massachusetts to attend Smith College. Florence had a fascination with science and was mentored by Dr. Preston, a female dean at the college. There were no medical schools accepting women at that time. She graduated from Smith and returned to Denver to teach school. During that time she learned of a proposal to accept women at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She applied and was accepted. She graduated with honors in 1900. She later went on to do groundbreaking work on the lymphatic system and moved onto the Rockefeller Institute where she developed new treatments for tuberculosis. She retired to her home in Colorado where she went back to work for the governor to improve the conditions of the state’s public health situation. Her statue is in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capital. There is an elementary school named in her honor in Denver, that I attended.
  • Dr. Susan Anderson, “Doc Susie” – born in 1869 in Indiana. Susan and her family moved to Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1890 during the gold rush. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1897 and returned to Colorado. She had difficulties as a woman finding a job as a doctor and moved frequently from Denver to Greely, to Eaton, usually doing nursing and not doctoring. Finally she moved to Fraser where she was a bit more appreciated for her medical skills. She treated everyone from common townsfolk to lumberjacks, ranchers, railroad workers, and miners. She was even called upon to be a veterinarian. She was a doctor that did house calls. During the winter months she would be seen heading out of her house very near the train tracks on snowshoes, sometimes not returning for one or more days depending on who and what she was going to treat. One instance found her at a ranch far out of town during a snowstorm to deliver a baby. Knowing the baby was due soon she stayed at the ranch for quite a while before the baby was born. Another time a young man had an accident with some explosives and another doctor from a neighboring town was called, his advice was to amputate the arm but Doc Susie arrived and disagreed with his recommendation and she saved the man’s arm. Doc Susie became the doctor for the miners and railroad workers working on the Moffat Tunnel. During those times many of her patients were unable to pay her and she became destitute having to apply to be the Grand County Coroner. This job provided her with a steady salary and allowed her to remain in Fraser and continue to practice medicine. She treated many during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. She also treated injured skiers from Winter Park. Doc Susie died in a rest home at the age of 91. She is buried in Cripple Creek. Dr. Susan Anderson has a very storied life and a wonderful book has been written about her life: “Doc Susie: the True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies”, by Virginia Cornell. This book was one of the Conifer Historical Society’s book club choices for 2022 and one of my personal favorites. A replica of a doctor’s exam room with Doc Susie’s implements of her trade as well as a tribute to her is located at the Cozens Ranch Museum in Granby, Colorado.
  • Dr. Alida Avery (1833-1908) – Dr. Avery graduated from the New England Female Medical College of Boston in 1862 and was a resident Physician at Vassar College from 1866-1874. In 1874 she moved to Colorado and became the first president of the Colorado Woman Suffrage Association in 1876. She was the first woman to practice medicine and serve as the Superintendent of Hygiene for the State of Colorado. Dr. Avery played a significant part in the Colorado Suffrage movement and helped attain the women’s right to vote.
  • Dr. Eleanor Lawney (1851-1922) – was the first female to graduate from a Colorado medical school in 1887, and was also on the Colorado Board of Charities and Corrections in 1900.
  • Dr. Mary Barker Bates (1848-1924) – As a doctor and a suffragist, Dr. Bates was able to sponsor legislation criminalizing sexual assault on children in 1905, increased the age of consent of women and harsher penalties for rape in 1907, established comprehensive laws for examination and care of children in the public school system in 1909, and laws about the enslavement of prostitutes in 1911. Clearly Dr. Bates played a major role in the treatment of children and women extending to our lives today.
  • Dr. Josepha Williams Douglas, of Evergreen – Dr. Douglas was born Mary Josepha Williams in Virginia in 1860 to wealthy parents. She graduated, Dr. Josepha Williams, from Gross Medical College (later Gross Medical College became the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine), in 1889. She began practicing medicine in Denver. Dr. Madeline Marquette and Dr. Williams founded the Marquette-Williams Sanitarium, in 1891. This medical and surgical center was located at 1542 Pearl Street in Denver and in 1892 they established a nursing school at the sanitarium. In 1896 she married Charles Winfred Douglas, an Episcopal minister. Charles had moved to Evergreen from New York to recover from tuberculosis and was under the care of Dr. Williams. In 1893, Dr. Douglas purchased several hundred acres of land in Evergreen near the cabin of her maternal uncle, Dr. Thomas Bailey. She had a cabin built on the property by John Spence. The cabin was added onto many times by Spence and in 1896 when she married Charles they moved to the Evergreen property and eventually expanded into a 17 room lodge. This lodge is now the Hiwan Homestead Museum. During her life she purchased large amounts of land in Evergreen, creating many churches and the Evergreen Conference District. Dr. Douglas, also was affectionately called Dr. Jo. She died March 9, 1938 in Evergreen after a long illness. She is buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver. Her husband remarried and moved back to New York.
  • Dr. Rachel Staunton – Born Rachel Hornbrook Bullard in West Virginia in about 1869. Dr. Staunton graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1894 and moved to Charlston, West Virginia and began practicing medicine. She met her husband in Charlston. She and Dr. Archibald G. Staunton were married on December 31, 1898. They remained in West Virginia and their one and only child, Francis, was born a year later. Sometime early in the 1900s Archibald became ill with either pneumonia or tuberculosis and they decided to move to a drier climate. Archibald boarded a train for California and along the route the train stopped in Denver. He got off of the train and took a stroll through a park in Denver and having noted the drier air and favorable climate he sent for Rachel and Francis. After they arrived it took them two weeks to decide to move to Denver. By 1903, both Rachel and Archibald obtained their medical licenses to practice medicine in the state. They settled into a home in Denver and their medical offices were located in the Republic Building downtown. In 1918, after many trips to the mountains Rachel and Archibald decided to homestead the Staunton Ranch. Rachel and Francis remained at the ranch at least seven months of the year to fulfill the requirements for the homestead. During her time at the ranch it is believed that she ran a sanitarium of sorts for tuberculosis patients. The ranch was also used as a camp and many of the cabins still remain. Over the many years that the Stauntons lived on the ranch Rachel was known by her neighbors as a compassionate woman who truly cared about her patients. Rachel also was interested in natural remedies for illnesses as well as the study of hormones, which was evidenced by the large garden and plants that were dried in her home and medical journals in her belongings after her death. Rachel also had acquired many more homestead acres over the years, almost all of them in her name and not Archibald’s. Rachel died in 1946 of heart failure and her ashes are interred in the mausoleum at Fairmount Cemetery. So much more on her life as well at the Staunton Ranch and Staunton State Park can be found in Bonnie Scudder’s book, “The Secrets of Elk Creek”. This book can be purchased from the Conifer Historical Society and Museum.

There is very little, next to none, history about the female First Peoples of this area or the United States and their contribution to the medical field. I honor those that have not been mentioned here for lack of research or literature available. It is my belief that their contributions are also numerous and deserve to be recognized for their contribution in the medical field.

One statistic from 1918 showed that women doctors in Colorado made up seven percent of the total licensed doctors, 117 of the total doctors in Colorado were female, the fourth highest number of female doctors in any state in the U.S.

If interested I would highly recommend reading the following sources for this article:

Jensen, K. (1996). The “Open Way of Opportunity”: Colorado Women Physicians and World War I. The Western Historical Quarterly, 27(3), 327–348.

Scudder, B. E. (2013). The Secrets of Elk Creek (1st ed., pp. 93-102). Bonnie Scudder.