, Derry, New Hampshire

November 21, 2013

Column: Danforth led the way for women in medicine

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — 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.

While living at home, she’d continue her education by riding her horse 10 miles after supper to study physiology and chemistry with a doctor. In 1876, after five years, Mary finally completed the three-year medical course. She was now Mary Danforth, MD. Soon she was earning four times what she could have earned if she had stayed a teacher. All her college loans were soon paid off. Her success also convinced her parents that she had made the right career choice.

She decided to practice in Manchester but first had to get the approval of the five members of the city’s medical board. Mary had no problem with the written and oral exam but one of her examiners looked at the petite physician and exclaimed, “Look at those tiny wrists! She will never stand the practice of medicine.” Regardless of her diminutive dimensions, she was allowed to hang out her shingle.

For the next eight years Mary had to spend part of each week in Weare so she could nurse her ailing father. She soon became a popular doctor in both city and town, handling house calls, day or nights, to any patient within a 25-mile radius of her office.

Mary refused to apply for membership in the ultra-conservative State Board of Medicine because, she said, “I fear they don’t want me.” In 1878, without telling Mary of their plans, the same five gray-headed doctors who had reluctantly approved her license to practice in Manchester, put up her name to join the state board. The gang of five argued so strongly for her inclusion that on the first round of voting it was nearly unanimous to invite her in. The only negative vote came from a Concord physician, who announced “I have no objection to the young woman personally; it is because I do not think women are strong enough to become practitioners of medicine.” After that pretty speech, he changed his vote in response to their collective wisdom. Dr. Danforth thus became, by a unanimous vote, the first woman doctor to be licensed by our state medical society -- and many claim she is also the first to be so licensed in America.

For the next 55 years, Mary was a respected physician and surgeon in Manchester and shared her School Street home with her brother. She thoroughly believed in her mission to protect the public’s health and became active in the Women’s Christian Union, believing smokers and drinkers were putting poison into their bodies. At a WCTU meeting in 1919, she came out against women dressing in the new “Paris styles” because their high-heeled shoes and backless dresses are “contrary to good health and morals.” The shoes she announced “shatter the osseous system and those bare backs are especially calamitous to the respiratory organs; the lungs must suffer.” She frequently attended national medical conferences where she gained considerable attention by her opposition to unlimited vivisection.

Another of her passions was securing for women the right to vote. In June 1914, the city of Manchester held a massive Flag Day parade on Elm Street. The suffragettes’ float featured a lady dressed as Betsy Ross sewing a flag. Behind the float rode Dr. Mary Danforth dressed as patriot leader Sam Adams and astride a spirited blood-bay colored horse. Beside her, on a second horse and dressed as Barbara Frietchie rode Edna Lawrence, a nationally known leader of the suffrage movement. Both the women and horses were bedecked with purple, white and green streamers -- the official colors of the women’s rights movement. All along the parade route the two ladies received tremendous ovations from both men and women.

Miss Danforth continued to practice medicine until shortly before her passing on Aug. 6, 1937, at age 87. She was buried in the family lot in Forest Hill Cemetery in East Derry.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.