Women in Medicine

Funded through an Educate and Automate Grant from the Illinois State Library,
a division of the Office of the Secretary of State


by Arlis Dittmer, Blessing-Rieman College of NursingWomen in medicine include untrained nurses, religious sisters devoted to the healing arts, pioneers in the emerging nursing profession and female physicians who were trained in this country and abroad.

Women had always taken charge of the sick in the home. Their outside interests included religious and charity work, which at that time was the only way to assist those who were sick and unable to care for themselves. 19th century medicine, among the poor, was often charity work as the scientific advances necessitating hospital care were yet to come.


The Civil War was a pivotal event in American society. One of its lesser known impacts was in enlarging women’s sphere of influence into the public sector. Women became important in the various philanthropic institutions of the day. 30% of Civil War deaths were from disease, with typhoid fever causing the most deaths. Such diseases and wounds were overwhelming the regular army’s ability to care for its men. It was only natural that they would turn to women for help. There were approximately 7,000 untrained, male, female, and religious order nurses in the Civil War.

After the war, there were large numbers of poor, disabled soldiers, displaced families, widows and orphans. These people often needed care and the number of hospitals in the United States went from 100 in 1861, to over 6,000 by 1911. Nursing care was the product of the hospital and therefore training nurses became a cheap way to care for the patients. Mary Wheeler devoted her life to improving both patient care and the education of nurses.

Throughout the 19th century, women had little economic or political power. They could marry and stay within the home or enter into a religious vocation, education or nursing. Women would seek a career if they had financial reversals, or had been left with no support by a husband or father. Few were of independent means such as Louisa Maertz or Melinda Germann. If they had to work, they entered into nursing rather than medicine. Physicians, who were attempting to turn medicine into a profession, didn’t want women. Physicians were interested in controlling status, income, market share, and later, education. Most medical schools, such as Quincy Medical College, were proprietary. Training of physicians didn’t really enter the universities until late in the 19th century. Physicians who wanted scholarly training went abroad. Strong, confident women had to overcome significant obstacles to work in nursing or practice medicine.


Mary C. Wheeler, Superintendent of Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses, Quincy, Illinois, 1899-1910

bh000001 Mary Wheeler (1869-1944) graduated from Ripon College in 1890 and Illinois Training School for Nurses in 1893. She came to Blessing Hospital in 1899 to run the school and hospital. This is the earliest picture of her in the Blessing Hospital Archives and shows her as a graduate nurse.
bh000002 This signature is on the inside cover of the 1901 edition of Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not by Florence Nightingale. This book was one of the few nursing texts available at that time.
bh000006 Excerpt of the Board of Lady Managers of Blessing Hospital, Annual Report, May, 1903. “The Training School has reached a high standard of efficiency and has been reorganized to such an extent that Miss Wheeler has been asked to be on the board of directors of the State Association of Graduate Nurses.”
bh000007 This picture shows Miss Wheeler with the 1904 nursing class of Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses. She had just returned from a leave of absence to take the graduate course in hospital economics taught by Nutting and offered by Teachers College, Columbia University. This prestigious course was by invitation only.
bh000005 Miss Wheeler with the 1905 nursing class of Blessing Hospital Training School for Nurses.During this time period Miss Wheeler spent time in Springfield lobbying the State Legislature to pass the Nurse Practice Act. The bill was first sent in 1903 but did not pass until 1907. Miss Wheeler was then appointed to the first Illinois State Board of Examiners of Registered Nurses. This board visited all of the nursing schools in Illinois to see if they met the standards necessary for their graduates to take the licensure examination.
bh000008 When this 1911 class picture was taken, Miss Wheeler had changed the curriculum of the training school and the criteria for entrance. The requirement for a diploma was now three years of training. Blessing was among the first 30 training schools in Illinois to be registered. All Blessing graduates were then eligible to sit for the exam and put RN behind their name. Earlier graduates were grandfathered into the profession.
bh000003 By the time of this photograph, published in the American Journal of Nursing, October, 1922, Miss Wheeler had been President of the National League for Nursing Education, Superintendent of Illinois Training School, and had written her own book, Nursing Technic. She had become a nursing leader of national stature.


  1. Board of Lady Managers of Blessing Hospital. (1898-1910). Minutes (minutes of monthly meetings). Quincy, IL: Blessing Hospital.
  2. Church, O. M. (1988). Mary Curtis Wheeler. In V. L. Bullough, O. M. Church, & A. P. Stein (Eds.).
  3. American Nursing: A biographical dictionary (Vol. 1, pp. 334-335). New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.
  4. Dunwiddie, A. M. (1937). A history of the Illinois State Nurses’ Association, 1901-1935. Chicago, IL: Illinois State Nurses’ Association.
  5. Obituaries. (1945, February). American Journal of Nursing, 45, 164.
  6. Schryver, G. F. (1930). A history of the Illinois Training School for Nurses: 1880-1929. Chicago, IL: The Board of Directors of the Illinois Training School for Nurses.

Contributing Library:

Blessing Health Professions Library, a service of Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing

Dr. Melinda Knapheide Germann

bh000015 This picture of Dr. Germann shows her standing outside with her doctor’s bag. She was born in Quincy on July 16, 1863 and died on July 15, 1952. She practiced medicine in Quincy for over 50 years, beginning with her graduation from Quincy College of Medicine in 1886. She presented a paper to the AMA Convention in 1907, one of the few Quincy physicians to do so. In addition to her busy medical career, she was the first women elected to the Board of Education and the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors.
bh000016 This is a picture of Dr. Germann in summer dress. The photo is from a nursing class album, dated 1918. She joined the staff of Blessing Hospital in 1901, and taught Obstetrics to the nursing students from 1906 to 1936. Twice she traveled to Europe to take graduate courses in medicine. Shortly after graduation in 1886, she went to Zurich, Paris and Vienna. In 1913, she returned to Vienna for an additional 6 month course of study.
bh000017 This photo of Dr. Germann shows her children both of whom were practicing physicians at Blessing Hospital. Dr. Hildegarde Germann Sinnock and Dr. Aldo Germann. Dr. Hildegarde, graduated from Vassar and Johns Hopkins, and Dr. Aldo Germann, a surgeon, graduated from Northwestern. Dr. Germann had retired by the time of this photo.
bh000018 Dr. Germann wrote a short memoir in 1937, after she retired from over 50 years of practice. This first excerpt talks about her attending Medical School. ” … [I] entered the Quincy College of Medicine, which later became a department of Chaddock College. Our medical school here, although small was equipped with a good staff of physicians and surgeons. Our hospital advantages were perhaps somewhat limited. The dissecting material, however, was quite ample but no graves were robbed of their contents as the school was sometimes accused of. Our class not being so large, each received much individual attention. We numbered fourteen, eleven men and three women. Dr. J. W. Bitter and myself, members of the class are still active in the profession. After receiving my diploma from this school, I decided to further my studies in medicine and take a course abroad.”
bh000019 This part of the memoir relates a story of going to see patients in a sleigh. “When sleighing was good I made calls in a sleigh with Prince in the harness and sometimes the children would accompany me. One cold morning with a fine layer of snow, we started out. As you all know it takes more space to turn a sleigh then it does a buggy. I turned too short and our sleigh upset spilling out occupants, laprobe, medicine cases and all other paraphernalia. The sleigh righted itself and Prince went slowly on. He must have noticed that his load was lighter for he stopped and looked back to see if we were coming. We picked ourselves up along with our belongings and soon were on our way again.”


  1. Dr. Melinda Germann, 88, pioneer woman physician, dies after long illness. (1952, July 15). The Quincy Herald-Whig.
  2. Germann, M. K. (1937). The reminiscences of a pioneer woman physician. Unpublished manuscript, Blessing Hospital at Quincy, IL.
  3. Manning, M. (1942, date unknown). Portraits of Miami’s most interesting women: Dr. M. K. Germann [Talk of the tower]. Miami Herald.

Contributing Library:

Blessing Health Professions Library, a service of Blessing-Rieman College of Nursing

Dr. Justina Laurena Carter Ford (1871-1952)

Justina Laurena Carter was born in 1871 in Knoxville, a small town a few miles east of Galesburg, Illinois. She grew up in Galesburg. Her interest in the practice of medicine was apparently cultivated at a young age.

She graduated from Hering Medical College in Chicago in 1899. She first practiced in Normal, Alabama, but soon moved to Denver, Colorado. Throughout her career, Dr. Ford faced the obstacles of being both African American and a woman in a profession that much of society felt belonged to white males. “The Lady Doctor” persevered and served a needy segment of society – the disadvantaged and underprivileged of all races. She is claimed to have delivered over 7,000 babies.

Eventually, Dr. Ford was allowed to practice at Denver General Hospital and admitted to the Denver, the Colorado and the American Medical Societies. However, by 1950, she was still the only physician in Colorado to be both African American and female.

Ford’s former home is now the Black America West Museum and Heritage Center in Denver.


  1. Harris, Mark. (1996) (March 1950) “The Forty Years of Justina Ford.” Negro Digest v. 8, pp 43-45
  2. Smith, Jessie Carney, (1996) “Justina L. Ford” in Notable Black American Women. Vol. II. Smith, Jessie Carney, Ed. Gale Research Inc, New York., pp. 734-736.

Mary Jane Safford, 1834-1891

Mary Jane Safford was born in the state of Vermont in 1834. Her family moved to southern Illinois while she was a child. She earned teaching qualifications and began her career as a teacher near Cairo.

In 1861, the Civil War focused military attention on Cairo and the surrounding area. Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was considered of strategic importance because the rivers were a primary means of transportation. The Cairo area became the site of several military hospitals serving wounded soldiers. Mary Jane, along with Mother Bickerdyke and others, nursed wounded soldiers at the hospitals.

Following the war, Mary Jane earned a medical degree and opened a practice in Chicago. Poor health forced her to retire about 1886.


  1. Witter, Evelyn and David R. Collins. 1976. Illinois Women: Born to Serve. Illinos Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Contributing Library:

John A. Logan College

Doctor Anna, Anna Pierce Hobbs Bigsby, 1808-1869

Doctor Anna is one of Southern Illinois’ legends – one of those real people whose stories have most likely been embelished but certainly have some basis in fact.

Anna Pierce was born about the year 1808 in the more settled country of the East. When she was sixteen she moved with her parents to Hardin County, in southern Illinois. Before long, Anna returned to Philadelphia, where she took courses to become a physician. At that time, subject areas taught to women were limited. In 1828, she returned to Hardin County where she was the only physician. Within a few years she married a neighbor named Mr. Hobbs

Anna was soon confronted by an epidemic called milk sickness. The illness killed animals and people, among them Anna’s mother and her sister-in-law Mary Hobbs. Many settlers in the Midwest were afflicted or killed by milk sickness, including Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Many residents in Anna’s community blamed milk sickness on potions scattered by witches. This explanation didn’t satisfy Anna, and determined to find the cause, she studied the disease and its characteristics. She determined that the illness was seasonal, beginning in summer and continuing until the first frost. It was more prominent in cattle than in other animals, suggesting the cause might be a plant eaten by the cattle.

The legend says that while following the cattle in search of the cause, she happened upon a Shawnee Indian woman who told her that white snakeroot plant caused milk sickness. Anna tested the hypothesis by feeding the plant to a calf, demonstrating its poisoness properties. She and others in the community then began a campaign to eradicate the plant from the area.

Although Anna was correct in her analysis, when she died in 1869, she had received no official recognition for her discovery of the cause of milk sickness. In fact, the medical community did not recognize the plant as the cause of the disease until well into the 20th Century.


  1. Allen, John W. 1968. It happened in southern Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
  2. Cichy, Kelly A., 1986. Women Meet the Challenge in Southern Illinois History. Carbondale, Ill. : Women’s History Week Steering Committee
  3. Hall, Elihu N. 1948. Ballads from the bluffs Elizabethtown, Ill.
  4. Snively, W. D., April 1967. Minnesota Medicine, V. 50, pp. 469-476.

Contributing Library:

John A. Logan College

Dr. Elizabeth Howard Miner (1867-1960), Macomb’s first woman physician


Dr. Elizabeth Miner


ma000002Holmes Hospital, Macomb, Illinois

ma00053pPhelps Hospital, Macomb, Illinois
Elizabeth Miner was born in Iowa on Christmas Day, 1867. She earned a degree from Shenandoah Teachers College and taught school prior to her first marriage. When her husband died, Elizabeth married William C. Miner.

Four years later, in 1895, Mrs. Miner graduated from Denver Medical College in Denver, Colorado. She and husband William moved to Macomb, Illinois, where she became Macomb’s first woman physician-surgeon. William Miner operated a bookstore that carried textbooks and school-related items for the Western Illinois State Normal School (now Western Illinois University).

During her medical career in Macomb, Dr. Miner served in three of Macomb’s Hospitals: Phelps, Holmes, and St. Francis.

The Phelps Hospital was Macomb’s first hospital, built in 1900. Funds for the hospital were donated by Marietta Phelps and Dr. S. C. Stremmel, one of Elizabeth Miner’s colleagues. The hospital had fourteen rooms, with one ward for men and a separate ward for women. Each ward had five beds. The hospital also contained an operating room. In the 1920s, a third floor was added.

In 1906, Dr. Stremmel donated money to add eight private rooms and a larger operating room. Their were eight physicians on staff, including Dr. Stremmel (chief surgeon) and Dr. Miner (diseases of women). Patients paid $7 per week for a bed in the ward and between $10 and $18 per week for a private room.

Dr. Miner was a charter member and the first secretary of the McDonough County Medical Society organized in 1897. She served as a delegate to the Illinois Medical Society from 1918 to 1938.

In 1935, Dr. Miner was elected Vice President of the Illinois Medical Society, becoming the first woman to hold elected office in the state society. She was also elected president of the Illinois branch of the American Women’s Medical Association.

Dr. Miner was also active in other organizations, including the Macomb Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Delphian Society and the First Baptist Church. She was also a member of the Business and Professional Womens Club (founded in 1924, the Club’s first president was Caroline Grote)

Dr. Elizabeth Miner practiced medicine for 50 years. Her career continued into the late 1940s. She died at age 93 in Macomb.


  1. “Dr. Elizabeth Miner, 93, of Macomb, Dies”, Macomb Daily Journal, Macomb, IL. 1960.
  2. Hallwas, John E. (1990) Macomb: A Pictorial History, G. Bradley Publishing, Inc., St. Louis, MO.

Contributing Library:

Macomb Public Library, Macomb, Illinois

50th Anniversary of St. Mary’s Hospital 1866-1916


St. Mary’s Hospital, Quincy, Illinois

Contributing Library:

Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois

Nursing in the Civil War – Civil War Medicine


This essay about Civil War medicine was possibly written by Fr. Landry Genosky.
[Typewritten, Paper size= 8.5 x 11 inches, standard bond paper]


Contributing Library:

Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois

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