, Derry, New Hampshire


November 21, 2013

Column: Danforth led the way for women in medicine

For nearly 300 years, Old Nutfield had been the hometown to a number of remarkable physicians. Among them are: Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Luther Bell and George Tuttle of the world famous McLean Hospital; Herman Sanders, the first doctor to be put on trial for euthanasia; Bella Chapin, America’s first female eye surgeon. And then there’s my doctor, Ted Brooks.

I’d like to add Dr. Mary Shepherd Danforth to this pantheon of prominent physicians. She was born in Derry in 1850 to Charles and Rebecca Danforth, farmers from Derry Village. In 1938, the Danforth traffic circle would be named after the family. In 1854, they moved to Manchester but she returned to Derry to graduate with the Pinkerton Academy class of 1869. She went to high school here because she was too frail to walk the couple of miles to school in Manchester; in Derry she could live with her grandmother who lived next to the academy. During summer vacations she taught school herself and in 1868 was principal of a 200-student school in Connecticut.

In 1869, the family moved to Weare, where she decided she wanted to become a physician.

Her parents were so upset by this career choice that her mother vowed that if she studied medicine she’d never speak to her again! Mary stuck by her decision and later said this was the only time she had ever disobeyed her parents. That summer she apprenticed herself to a local doctor to learn the basics of the healing profession.

Mary saved most of teacher’s pay until she had enough money to enroll in the Philadelphia Women’s Medical College. At the end of each college year, she’d take a year off to earn money to pay part of the next year’s college’s tuition. The rest of her college costs she got by borrowing from friends, relations and strangers; anyone who’d make a loan to a penniless woman who could only promise she would eventually repay her debts. She began to live so frugally that relatives were concerned for her health.

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