Lydia Folger Fowler, M. D., 1822 – 1879, First American-Born Woman to Receive a Medical Degree

Born on Nantucket on May 5, 1822, Lydia Folger was a descendant of famed island scientist Walter Folger Jr. and was related to Benjamin Franklin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, Maria Mitchell, and Phebe Coffin Hanaford. The daughter of Gideon and Eunice Folger, she was educated in Nantucket schools. She may have demonstrated a natural talent for science, as many in the Folger line did. This propensity for science was likely influenced further by what she learned in Nantucket schools, which at that time were still mainly private; public schools following the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were not fully instituted on the island until 1838 (White 1992). In 1838, Lydia attended Wheaton Seminary in Massachusetts and taught there from 1842 – 1844 (Dixon 1993/1994).

Lydia Folger Fowler.
Lydia Folger Fowler, ca. 1860. F900. Image courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

In 1844, she was examined by a young phrenologist named Lorenzo Fowler, who had traveled to Nantucket. During that examination, Fowler found that his subject “‘not only learns from books, but from observation and experience . . . . She is also fond of natural history’” (Stern 1977, 1137). One can assume that learning from observation and experience and having a love of natural history were not just inherent in Lydia Folger, but also something that she learned on Nantucket from her teachers, family, and other islanders. The idea of learning by doing was a common way of teaching on the island. She may have been taught by island educator Cyrus Peirce, who made this philosophy the foundation of his school, and by her relative, William Mitchell, also an island educator and noted astronomer, who was the father of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer. In a poem written by Lydia in 1870 titled “My Island Home,” she credits the island for the education it provided her and the strong impression it left upon her, which caused her to live “with noble aims” (Dixon 1993/1994).

On September 19, 1844, Lydia Folger married Lorenzo Fowler of New York City – the young phrenologist who had examined her on Nantucket. After the birth of her first child, Lydia, encouraged by her husband, enrolled in the “eclectic” and homeopathy-focused Central Medical College in Syracuse, New York in 1849, at the age of twenty-seven (Stern 1977). At the time of her enrollment, Lydia was already well known for lectures that she gave in conjunction with her husband and for several books she had written, including Familiar Lessons on Physiology, a book for use by children. It was her Nantucket cousin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, who helped Lydia gain access to the school (Dixon 1993/1994). The year 1849 was the same year that Elizabeth Blackwell received her medical degree, making her America’s first female physician. Lydia was one of three female students enrolled in the college, and when she graduated in 1850, she was the only female graduate. While Blackwell claimed fame as the first American woman to graduate from medical school, Lydia could claim that she was the first American-born woman to earn a medical degree.

Just two months after graduating, Lydia gave birth to her second child. In that same year, she was appointed by the college as the Principal of the Female Department and the demonstrator of anatomy for female students (Stern 1977). While women were allowed into the college, and they had the same course of study as men, some of the classes were separated – anatomy in particular – because it was believed to be inappropriate for women and men to take these classes together. Later, Lydia was appointed as the Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children at the college (Stern 1977). Lydia’s position as professor at the medical college made her the first female professor of medicine in the United States. In 1851, Lydia became the first female physician in the United States to address an organized society of medical men. In 1852, after several years of conflict, which included the college’s move to Rochester, New York, it finally closed. Lydia then opened her own practice in New York City at 50 Morton Street with a focus in gynecology. She could also be found in the late afternoons practicing in her husband’s phrenology offices (Stern 1977).

With a private practice and no students or class schedules to keep, Lydia began to tour with her husband on the lecture circuit – both of them providing lectures around the country and throughout Europe. Lydia’s audience was female, and she lectured on the physiology and diseases of women and, later, on the effects of alcohol on physiology. She noted in an undated letter to her brother, Allen Folger, living in Gardner, Massachusetts, that it was difficult to leave behind her three daughters for the European trip, but that she felt that it was “for their good and happiness” (NHA Coll. 118, Folder 37). She was away for at least a year. In this same letter, the only one that is in the collection at the Nantucket Historical Association, she referred to a man, possibly the manager or scheduler of the husband and wife duo, who gave her some difficulty over speaking engagements so she “keep{s} quiet or {she would} be in hot water all the time” (NHA Coll. 118, Folder 37). Perhaps her limited engagements to female-only audiences were the doings of this gentleman to whom she refers.

During this period, Lydia became associated “with two other institutions, both of an unconventional nature” (Stern 1977, 1138). These were the New York Hydropathic and Physiological School and the Metropolitan Medical School. At the first school, Lorenzo also lectured. Lydia lectured on midwifery and female diseases. Much of the Hydropathic School was focused on the healing powers of cold water, hard mattresses, and graham bread, which dovetailed with some of the beliefs of the temperance movement – something in which Lydia also actively participated.

Lydia and Lorenzo continued to lecture around the country and then in Europe, where Lorenzo opened a branch of his phrenology office in London. It was here that Lydia furthered her work by publishing more of her lectures, becoming an active member of the British Women’s Temperance Association, and serving the poor of London’s and Ireland’s slums whom she visited to dispense medical treatment, birth babies, and provide assistance and information concerning hygiene (Dixon 1993/1994). Ironically, it was from those she was helping that Lydia contracted a disease that became pleuropneumonia. She passed away on January 26, 1879, having lived her professional life attempting to determine the cause of diseases and effective treatments for them, particularly among women and children.

“My Island Home” by Lydia Folger Fowler, originally published in Heart Melodies, a book of poetry published in 1870. Taken from Alice Dixon’s article in Historic Nantucket.

For every island child can learn
to write, and spell, and read
Without expense in public schools
that are good schools indeed.
In literary attainments
that island of the sea
Is the Athens of the region,
long may it ever be.
Its sons and daughters may depart
and travel o’er the earth
Their Island Home they’ll not forget,
the isle that gave them birth.
As the native soil is fertile
in which the acorn lies,
So will grow the umbrageous oak
with branches to the skies.
As is the earliest bias
that the young child receives,
So will an influence be given
that never, never leaves
That child: where’er his destiny
may send him forth to roam
His heart will ever bear the seal
stamped at his childhood’s home.
If I have led a useful life,
and good to others done,
If I have lived with noble aims,
the motive power has come
From strong impress I received
at my dear island home
Before I ever ventured forth
in the wide world to roam.
As children think with gratitude
of mothers very kind
Who hold them by the cords of love
which they know how to bind,
So of that isle I love to think,
that isle beyond the sea,
For the memory of that isle
is very dear to me

 


Excerpted from The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island
By Jascin Leonardo Finger
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References

Abbreviations

NHA − Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, MA.

Manuscripts

Folger Family Collection. Collection 118, Folder 37. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.

Stackpole Collection. Collection 335, Folder 307. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.

Secondary Sources

Dixon, Alice. 1993/1994. A lesser-known daughter of Nantucket: Lydia Folger Fowler. Historic Nantucket 41: no. 4 60-62.

Hanaford, Phebe A. 1883. Daughters of America; Or, women of the century. Augusta,Maine: True and Company.

Stern, Madeleine B. Lydia Folger Fowler: First American woman professor of medicine. New York State Journal of Medicine (June 1977).

White, Barbara. The integration of Nantucket public schools. Historic Nantucket 40, no. 3 (Fall 1992).

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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