September is the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, which celebrates the accomplishments of, and showcases advocacy for, female physicians, while also highlighting health issues impacting female patients.
Did you know that the AMA, which was founded in 1874, didn’t have its first female president until 1998? It didn’t even have any female leaders until 1969, when Louise C. Gloeckner became vice president. That’s nearly 100 years after today’s subject, Sarah Hackett Stevenson, became the first woman to join the AMA.
Sarah was born in the small town of Buffalo Grove, (now Polo), in northwestern Illinois, which her father helped found. As a young woman, she attended Mount Carroll Seminary and State Normal College, in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with honors as a teacher. After several years of teaching and serving as a principal in public schools in Bloomington, Mount Morris and Sterling, Illinois, she moved to Chicago to study anatomy and physiology at Woman’s Hospital Medical College as one of its earliest students.
During her course of study, Sarah spent a year in England at South Kensington Science School in London learning from famed biologists Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. After returning to America, she graduated from the medical college with the highest honors in 1874, becoming one of Illinois’ first female physicians. She went back to Europe to continue her studies under Huxley and Darwin at hospitals in London and Dublin. During this time, she was appointed by Illinois Governor John Beveridg as a delegate to the International Sanitary Conference in Vienna, which was the fourth of 14 conferences organized to standardize international quarantine regulations against the spread of cholera, plague and yellow fever.
Back once again in the United States, Sarah began her medical career as physiology chair at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago, a role she held for five years. In 1875 she was elected as a member of the Illinois State Medical Society and appointed head of the Illinois State Medical Society’s committee on progress in physiology. The following year, she was named an alternate delegate to the AMA convention in Philadelphia, becoming a full delegate and the organization’s first female member when the original male delegate was unable to attend. She appears to have met with surprisingly little resistance and even boldly listed her full name on the official delegate roster instead of using first and middle initials like many of her male colleagues.
She served as a delegate again three more times and in 1878, was chair of an AMA special committee for advancing physical sciences. In 1879, she presented a paper on the sympathetic nervous system. Sarah was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at the Cook County Hospital. She wrote several books, including the well-known The Physiology of Woman.
Sometime in 1880, Sarah resigned from her position at Woman’s Medical College because she believed that men and women should be taught together, rather than segregated by gender. She wrote, “I hope that men and women will be educated in one institution–educated as physicians without any regard to the sex question at all. It seems to me, if we be physicians, that the first necessity is equality of opportunity, and that is all the woman physician asks.”
Advocacy for Women
Sarah was also actively involved in the temperance movement, serving as the first superintendent of the Department of Hygiene of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1881-1882. In 1886, the Chicago WCTU organized the National Temperance Hospital (later renamed the Frances Willard Hospital) with the express purpose of providing care without using medicines containing alcohol, and Sarah served as staff president.
Sarah was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. Her writings on the plight of women in late 19th century Chicago are available online. But she didn’t only write about injustice; she acted to end it. In 1880 she co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses, along with Lucy Flower. In 1893, Sarah proposed to the Chicago Woman’s Club to create a safe home for women and children who did not have money but needed shelter. Her proposal was accepted and funded by donations as the Woman’s Model Lodging House. Those who could pay were charged 15 cents/night, but women who could not worked instead. She also spoke in support of admission of a black member to the Chicago Woman’s Club, of which she was president.
Sarah retired in 1903 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that left her paralyzed and bedridden. She died in 1909 at the age of 68.