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Grand Rapids in 1856

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Our First Woman Doctor

Our First Woman Doctor

GRHC - June 11th, 2011

This episode of Glance at the Past shares the history of Grand Rapids first women doctors. Frances Armstrong Rutherford was the first to achieve "regular" medical training. She was the first in Grand Rapids and in the United States to be elected a City Physician.    




One hundred years ago a surprising number of women physicians practiced in Grand Rapids. Of 153 doctors attending the city’s population in 1890, seven were women, not quite 5%--but probably more than you would have guessed. Fifteen years later the city boasted thirteen women practitioners. 

Frances Armstrong Rutherford was the first in Grand Rapids to receive what was called "regular" medical training. After leaving the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1868, she spent a year at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in the first class of female physicians to receive instruction in operative surgery.

Upon moving to Grand Rapids she was soon appointed city physician by the 1870 common council. It is claimed that she is not only the first woman to hold that office in Grand Rapids but likely the first in the United States. By 1872 Rutherford had been elected to the State Medical Society; a year later she served as its vice president. 

After a special course in gynecology at the Woman's Hospital in New York, she was a delegate from the local Medical and Surgical Society to the American Medical Association. Possibly the first woman elected as a regular delegate by that society. 

During the first major push for women's rights and women's suffrage, Rutherford’s career thrived. But the hospitable climate for medical women didn't last. A serious backlash occurred during the early and mid-twentieth century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the numbers of women physicians again began a steady climb.


Full Details

TitleOur First Woman Doctor
KeywordsGlance at the Past, history, woman, doctor, physician, Frances Armstrong Rutherford, Grand Rapids, Historical Commission, Podcast
Pubdate StringJune 11th, 2011

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