Salem Doctresses and Doctors

I was watching a rerun of Antiques Roadshow last week when a woman from Ohio presented a wonderful trade sign from the 1830s to folk art dealer Allan Katz: on one side it read “Mrs. Dupler, Female Physician” and on the other “Mrs. Dupler, Doctress.” I have been researching the first female physicians in Salem over the past few weeks so this appraisal really caught my attention: that odd word doctress had popped up several times, and I didn’t really know what it meant. Mr. Katz explained that it had “magical’ connotations, but I think it also referred to traditional herbal healing: the first doctresses to advertise as such in Salem newspapers all had the word “Indian” before their “titles”.




Doctress-Coly-Salem_Register_1862-12-04_3-1Advertisements in the Salem Register, 1852 & 1862.

The founder of New England’s first medical school for women, the New England Female Medical College (1848-1873), asserted that the ladies of the profession should have a title exclusively their own, and not be compelled to share one with dentists, apothecaries, cattle curers, professors of divinity, professors of law, and male physicians of all descriptions and specialties, but most of his graduates did not agree with Dr. Samuel Gregory. And no wonder: these were women of science who wanted to distinguish themselves from itinerant folk healers, mediums, and other “eclectic” practitioners!

pixlrThe Female Medical College campus on East Concord Street in Boston.

The New England Female Medical College was absorbed into the new Boston University Medical School after 1873, and most of Salem’s first female physicians were graduates of the latter. From the graduation of Sarah E. Sherman in 1876 through the retirement of her former associate Mary Roper Lakeman in the later 1920s, Salem had several successful medical practices run by female physicians. Drs. Sherman, Kate G. Mudge, and Lakeman all included M.D. after their names and Dr. before: they never referred to themselves as “Doctress”. These women attended medical conferences, published papers, attained leadership positions in professional associations, and mentored other female physicians—bringing a succession of young female doctors to Salem. Indeed it’s clear from both the Salem Directories and Polk’s Medical Register and Directory of North America that doctress remained a designation for women who had not attended medical school. I am certain that the esteemed Dr. Sherman (who also was among the first women elected Salem’s School Committee in 1879) was not happy to be grouped together with doctresses like Mrs. Lydia M. Buxton, “Clairvoyant Physician”, and after the 1880s, she was not.


Screenshot_20200408-072249_InstagramSalem Directories, 1882-1892.

Appendix: for much, much more information and context about the history of women physicians and health workers, check out Drexel University Medical School’s great “Doctor or Doctress?” site:

9 responses to “Salem Doctresses and Doctors

  • Nancy

    Donna! That Antiques Roadshow came on here (PBS in Texas) today! I, too, have long been fascinated with women healers, particularly as they were seen as a threat to the male physicians of the time. Many were accused of witchcraft, also being called crones, cunning folk, wise women, midwives, white witches, hags, and your “doctoresses,” perhaps because they stepped outside the boundaries of accepted female medicine practice.

    I stitched a “gathering pocket” (my terminology) with these women’s names: Ann Edmonds and Mary Hale (who treated smallpox, among other scourges), Elizabeth Morse, Ann Burt, Winifred and Mary Holman, and, sadly, Margaret Jones, who was hanged in 1648. I will email you photos of my work. I truly enjoy designing and stitching pieces based on history…

  • Pearl

    Loving Dr. Sherman’s considerate office hours that allowed visits before and after work.

  • Eilene Lyon

    I had not heard the term doctoress before. I can certainly see women educated in medical school rejecting such a term.

  • lisebreen

    The presence of the Indian Doctress, Sarah Coley–sometimes working alongside her husband– in Gloucester as well as in Salem, Newbury, and Boston, opens doors to our Native American history. The couple moved from Maine after the sale of their tribal lands. Healing (or huckstering) sustained them. Sarah, the daughter of a well-known Penobscot doctor (no matter how might we define the term and privilege certain practices), garnered many testimonials by several identified (and verified) Gloucester residents when she took out a storefront opposite the Orthodox Church on Middle St.

    When her husband had his practice, he advertised a certificate from three Camden, Maine Selectmen that testified to their “entire confidence in the skill and integrity of Dr. Peter Coly–he having for some eight or ten years resided in this town; and we do unhesitatingly say, that from a constant acquaintance with him and family, we have seen no cause to doubt his skill as a physician.” They signed off, “Dr. Coly, is, we believe, in all respects beyond reproach.” Coly explained in his advertisement that he was from the Penobscot nation, and that his Indian name was “Nicola.” He learned the medicinal properties of plants from his own father and from Sarah’s father:

    “Listen–old Doctor Lolar was also a great Doctor; he died a year ago last May, in Old Town, amongst the Indians. I married his daughter. My father carried on medicine before me, how am bred to know the virtues of Trees and their barks; Plants and their roots, and many secrets that come down from my Nation…

    No tree, no plant nor shrub of the forest, but I can name him and describe him to you. Sarah’s father knew all this, and he was taught the knowledge of the old men and women before him, and they learned of old, so that time is lost when they first began to know. Sarah’s father said he could teach me no more and long before he died.I was considered quite his equal by the tribe….Camden woods is mostly the place, and by the help of boys and girls I get a lot of Roots and Things, and bring a team and fetch them to be sorted and dried, and then bring it up. This is all true, and my skill and reputation, and character, will bear inspection you anything you can fetch up.”

    I am not a genealogist, but snippets of records indicate that Sarah’s father may have been Dr. Lola Sockbeson aka Dr. Lola or Dr. Loran/Loron. Nicola may have been Nicola of Old Town or he was descended from him. Peol Nicola, with a few others, was accused of selling thousands of acres of Penobscot lands without proper consent, although there is also some discussion that they were coerced or misunderstood the terms of the white speculators. By the time he arrived in Lowell in the late 1830s, Coley said there were 15 other Penobscot “canoes” and that these Penobscot made a living fishing and basket making. Doctoring probably provided more income. In the late 1850s, Dr. Peter Coley commuted to Boston for the week to work as a healer before returning on weekends to Lowell where he and Sarah raised four children. By the spring of 1861, the Coleys had moved on to Salem and then rented two spaces above J.S. Tappan’s store at 87 Front Street, Gloucester, where they both practiced separately. Sarah specialized in female complaints. A son, perhaps named Lola Coly enlisted as a Private in Gloucester’s 30th Regiment in Jan of 1862, and he saved a wounded man under a hail of bullets at Port Hudson. But Dr. Peter Coly drew the attention of the Lowell police. He was sent to the House of Correction for six months “as a common drunkard” that year. After he was arraigned for adultery in Lowell in 1864, Sarah helped Peter to be discharged from jail on the grounds of illness. She returned to Gloucester in December, alone, and picked up her practice in the same location. Her advertisements that winter cautioned, “all female Monthly Pills, except those obtained at her office are base counterfeits.”

    A possible relative, Joseph Nicola/Nicolar, a “Representative of the Passamaquoddy,” protested the land leasing and land sale terms in a stirring speech before the 1860 Maine legislature. He demanded the restoration of their rights and for the whites to “keep your hands off our beautiful islands.” He pleaded for funds to help rebuild a school house on Mattanawcook Island on the Penobscot River:
    The building weeps now, within and without, with every rain and is as ragged and tattered as an old poplar in the woods… We are like woodchucks drowned from their hole. We want a snug little school house of our own were we can take the children and teach them to read and to think: teach them how to live and how to die; teach them of their duty while on earth, and of the delights in the skies. Do we ask too much when we ask for this?…Give to us the means of feeding the mind before you force us to talk of ethnology or theology…Give to the Indians a chance to do something for themselves, and I then promise that you will see them acting in a way to benefit themselves. ”

    Perhaps it was Peter and Sarah’s heroic son, identified as “Lola Cola” [Coley, actual surname is Nicola],” who served as Representative of the Penobscot in the 1880s and 1890s (and who was cited by the ethnologist Frank Speck several times). The names mentioned above (Nicola, Nicolar, Loran, Lola, Sockbeson) still persist among the contemporary listings of Penobscot families.

    • daseger

      Wow, Lise– thank you for all of this wonderful information–and context! I was focusing on the later physicians, obviously, so breezed right by the earlier doctresses.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Many thanks! When I was reading about your doctresses, I was reminded of the plague doctors in early modern Europe. Your doctresses used traditional herbal healing and magic. My plague doctors were public servants who were allocated to the task of looking after plague victims! Neither group were qualified medicos, in the normal sense we know it.

    Thanks for the link

    • daseger

      Thanks for the link! It was a bit different in England, I think–you definitely have some trained physicians battling the plague from the 1625 plague on, as well as “irregular practicioners”.

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