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Facts About Florence Nightingale – Empowered Woman of Medicine (Part 1)

She was Named for the city of her birth

Born to William Edward and Frances Nightingale in 1920, Florence, and her older sister were both named after the cities of their birth. While on an extended honeymoon that lasted a few years, the couple gave birth to Frances Parthenope while they toured Parthenope, Italy, a Greek settlement which is now part of Naples, Italy. Shortly thereafter, they welcomed their second daughter into the world, whom we know now as the mother of modern nursing, Florence, while in Florence, Italy.

She came from inherited wealth

Florence’s father came into the world as William Edward Shore. In 1815, upon his great-uncle’s death, he inherited the family estate and changed his name to Nightingale. The family split their time between two grand homes in Embley, Hampshire and Lea Hurst, Derbyshire. They also spent the social season in London. As most wealthy girls in Victorian England, Florence was expected to marry a man of equal or greater wealth, live a luxurious life, produce children, and run the household. Florence knew early on her destiny lay elsewhere.

She was highly educated

Precocious as a child, Florence excelled in mathematics and languages. At a young age, she became fluent in French, German, Italian, Greek and Latin. Not only could she speak the languages, she could also read and write in these languages. Florence’s father took delight in his daughter’s intellect and encourage her education. He supported her in all of her studies including history, philosophy, and literature.

She felt “called” to her profession 

As a young girl, Florence felt called by God to help people. She often took care of the sick and injured wherever the family lived. 

Like many wealthy, educated, upper-class young adults, Florence embarked on several tours to finish out her education. While on these tours, she wrote about her experiences. She traveled to Greece and Egypt where she wrote of “spiritual grandeur,” and of being called to “do good for him [God] alone and without reputation.”

She became a published writer at 30 years of age

In 1950 she traveled to Germany where she visited a Lutheran community. The trip proved life-changing for her. She witnessed Pastor Theodor Fliedner and his assistant deaconesses serving the sick and deprived. In 1851 she wrote The Institution of Kaiserswerth on the Rhine for the Practical Training of Deaconesses and published it anonymously.

Her most famous literary contribution is her Notes on Nursing, What It Is and What It Is Not. It has been in continuous publication worldwide since 1859.

She rejected an exemplary marriage proposal after a 9-year courtship

As a wealthy, attractive, and charming young woman, Florence had the makings of a beneficial wife. She had several suitors, but the most ardent of them was Richard Monckton Milnes who pursued her for nine years. While she might have had mutual feelings for the politician who also had a romantic side and was an accomplished poet, Florence rejected him. She felt marriage and childbearing would interfere with her calling to nursing.

She knew influential people and was well connected

While traveling in Rome, Florence met Sidney Herbert, the former Secretary of War for the British government, while on his honeymoon. Nightingale, Herbert, and his wife became lifelong friends. Her friendship with Herbert would change her life and put her in the history books. She would later serve as his key advisor throughout the rest of his political career. She also became friendly with the influential theologian Benjamin Jowett who was Master of Balliol College at Oxford University

 She Said Yes to Her Calling

Although Florence’s family had reservations about her calling to nursing, they eventually accepted it. Florence enrolled at the Institution of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth in Germany. There she learned hospital administration and basic nursing skills. Later she became the superintendent of the Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Services in London. There she honed her skills as an administrator. She realized she had a talent for organization and leadership and intended to apply for the superintendent of nurses position at King’s College Hospital in London. Instead, she received another call. (Continued next week!)

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Empowered Women of the West – Dr. Nellie MacKnight (Part Two)

Dr. Nellie MacKnight (continued) For Part One click here.

The day after Olive’s funeral, Nellie was sent to live with her father’s brother and his wife in New York. While she got on well with her Uncle, his wife resented Nellie’s presence and made the fact well known to her. After two years of suffering verbal abuse from her Uncle’s wife, Nellie opted to go live with her mother’s sister, Mary until her father finally sent for her to live with him in the community of Bishop in Owens Valley, CA. He’d given up on his dreams of gold and returned to his career as a surveyor. Nellie was 14 years old and had not seen her father in nearly ten years.

Although her father still possessed the same sternness she remembered as a small child, Smith made an effort to reacquaint himself with his daughter. He enrolled her at the Inyo Academy, a boarding school, and when he wasn’t traveling for work, came to visit Nellie often. He took her on weekend fishing trips and taught her about the outdoors and how to survive in the wilderness. Finally, Nellie had the father she’d so longed for, and all to herself—until he broke the news that he was to remarry.

When Smith and his new wife returned from their honeymoon, they moved into a house near Nellie’s school and she moved in with them. With his new marriage, it seemed that Smith’s previous sternness turned to suspicion and possessiveness, and he never let Nellie attend dances or any kind of social event. Any fears Nellie might have had about her new stepmother were quickly squelched as Nellie found her to be a refuge from her father’s controlling ways. The two got along famously.

Nellie loved school and again excelled at her studies. At the age of 17 she graduated as valedictorian of her class. Exceedingly proud of his daughter, Smith insisted that Nellie go to college. Nellie was thrilled at the prospect of pursuing her dreams of an education in literature. But, that was not to be. Her father would not pay for an education in anything but law or medicine. Nellie knew not to contradict her father. And, after thinking about it—and remembering her grandmother and uncle’s death from typhoid—decided that medicine might be the right path for her.

Accompanied by her father, Nellie left for San Francisco to attend school at Toland Hall Medical College. He got her settled and returned home. While leaving her father and stepmother behind caused Nellie some distress, she quickly realized that she would soon be free from her father’s restrictive discipline. However, the reception she received at Toland Hall was less than warm and inviting. As one of only three women in the school, Nellie faced prejudice and resentment from the other students and professors. One of her professors, Dr. R. Beverley Cole, believed “that there are six to eight ounces less brain matter in the female. Which shows how handicapped she is.”

But, Nellie rose above the discrimination and chauvinism and graduated with honors. She had her name printed on her diploma as “Helen M. MacKnight,” at the suggestion of the school Dean, whose respect Nellie finally earned. He advised her that using the name “Helen” would give her more credibility in the world than Nellie.

Nellie went on to intern at the Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children, a hospital founded by three female doctors. In 1893, she joined the staff and specialized in working with children. She also assisted with obstetrics, disease research, and surgeries, including amputation. Two years later, her stepmother fell ill and Nellie had to return home. Her stepmother recovered under Nellie’s constant care, and instead of returning to the dispensary, Nellie decided to set up her own practice in the front room of her parents’ home.

Women with horse and buggy 1895 (Vintage Everyday)

Dr. Helen MacKnight soon became lovingly referred to as “Dr. Nellie” as she made her rounds about town and in the nearby mining camps in her small buggy pulled by two sturdy horses. As her reputation and financial situation improved, she eventually moved her practice out of her parents’ home.

In 1898 Nellie met her husband, Dr. Guy Doyle, another physician in the area. Unlike the other male doctors Nellie encountered in school, Doyle treated Nellie with admiration and respect. They fell in love and decided to go into practice together. They treated patients in Owens County until World War I when Dr. Doyle answered the call to service. After the war, Nellie and Guy moved to the Berkeley Hills where Nellie practiced anesthesiology at the University of California Hospital. In 1934, Nellie realized her childhood dreams of becoming an author and published her autobiography titled A Child Went Forth. The book was later retitled, Dr. Nellie.

 

Roses of the West, by Anne Seagrave

Enss, Chriss. “Wild Women Wednesday: Dr. Nellie Mattie MacKnight.” Cowgirl Magazine. October 19, 2016, https://cowgirlmagazine.com/wild-women-wednesday-dr-nellie-mattie-macknight/

 

Empowered Women of the West – Dr. Nellie MacKnight (Part One)

Women studying medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1892.
Cowgirlmagazine.com

San Francisco 1891

“Subjects, bodies for dissection, were divided into five parts—the head, two uppers and two lowers. By some ironical twist of circumstance, the first dissection assigned to me was a lower. The dissection of the pelvic organs was to be done in company with the young man who was assigned to the other lower. It was a male subject.

 … It came time for the quiz section in anatomy. The quizmaster was a dapper young graduate, much impressed with himself and his authority. He was of the group who hated the incursion of women into what he considered the distinctly masculine territory of medicine…The quizmaster walked over to our dissecting table.

 “Why has nothing been done on your subject?” he questioned.

 The young man hesitated, glancing at me.

 The quizmaster turned on me. “Have you the other lower on this subject?” His words were like a steel file.

 “Yes,” I replied, the blood rushing to my face.

 “Do you expect to graduate in medicine, or are you just playing around with the idea?”

 “I hope to graduate.” I tried to make my voice sound firm, but instead, I realized it sounded ridiculously weak and feminine…

“If you have any feelings of delicacy in this matter, young woman, you had better leave college and take them with your, or fold them away in your work basket and be here, on your stool, tomorrow morning. We don’t put up with any hysterical feminine nonsense in men’s medical schools.”

This, from the autobiography of Dr. Nellie MacKnight, is an account of one of her earliest assignments at San Francisco’s Toland Hall Medical School. One of only three women in her class, this naïve, but bold young girl would go on to graduate with flying colors and become one of the West’s most beloved and respected doctors.

But, medicine was not the profession Nellie MacKnight ever thought she’d choose. In fact, it wasn’t her choice at all. . .at first.

Dr. Helen MacKnight Doyle
Rangeandriverbooks.com

In Petrolia, Pennsylvania in 1873, Nellie came into the world as one of three children born to Smith and Olive MacKnight. Her two siblings died shortly after their birth, leaving Nellie to grow up an only child to a stern father, and an over-protective mother who lavished her with attention. An expert seamstress, Olive loved to dress Nellie in beautiful dresses made with her own hands. Though he loved his wife and daughter, Smith, found his profession as a surveyor dull, and his life in Pennsylvania uninspired. He desired to move out West in search of gold and riches, and in 1878, did just that, leaving his wife and daughter in the care of his parents in New York. He promised once he’d made his riches, he would send for the two of them. He never did.

Nellie found life at her grandparent’s farm happy and fulfilling. From her grandfather, she learned about horses and how to care for animals. From her grandmother, she learned more domestic chores, and also how to make remedies for certain illnesses. Her mother, Olive, did not fare as well. News from her husband that he’d purchased a mine with great potential raised Olive’s spirits momentarily until he stated that he would not send for her and Nellie until the mine “paid off.”

Despondent over the news, Olive fell into a depression. Life became harder when typhoid took Nellie’s grandmother and her favorite uncle. Fearing for Nellie’s health, Olive made the decision to move the two of them to her father’s home in Madrid, Pennsylvania. In order to keep herself and Nellie clothed, and Nellie in school, she took a job at the Warner Brother’s Corset Factory as a seamstress. Nellie excelled at her studies, and took a particular interest in literature and hoped to, one day, become an author.

Long hours and tedious work at the corset factory took its toll on Olive. Letters from her husband telling her that the mine had still not yielded any gold further distressed her. To relieve her pain and the stress caused from supporting herself and her young daughter—and the continued absence of her husband—she turned to laudanum, a tincture of opium. One night, in her drug-induced euphoria, Olive decided to end it all and overdosed. She left a note for ten-year-old Nellie encouraging her to “be a brave girl. Do not cry for Mamma.”

(To be continued next week)

Sources:

Roses of the West, by Anne Seagrave

Enss, Chriss. “Wild Women Wednesday: Dr. Nellie Mattie MacKnight.” Cowgirl Magazine. October 19, 2016, https://cowgirlmagazine.com/wild-women-wednesday-dr-nellie-mattie-macknight/