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”.
Advertisements 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!
The 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.
Salem 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: http://doctordoctress.org/.