“Pioneer Women and Medicine,” Church History Topics
“Pioneer Women and Medicine”
Women in the 18th and 19th centuries often worked together to provide medical care. They treated common ailments, sicknesses, and injuries, assisted childbirths, and shared home-manufactured medicines, including salves, syrups, teas, ointments, poultices, and dressings.1 At a time before modern medicine had attained high rates of success, many people distrusted doctors and relied on herbal remedies and faith.2 Early Latter-day Saints, like their American contemporaries, developed informal health networks within their communities, relying on each other both for medical care and for blessings and prayers.
In Nauvoo, Church leaders valued the practical wisdom, compassion, and faith of midwives like Patty Sessions and Zina Huntington. These women were set apart as healers to deliver care, administer medicine, mentor other midwives, and perform healing blessings.3 In July 1851 women in Utah organized the Female Council of Health. The council sustained midwife Phoebe Angell, mother of Brigham Young’s wife Mary Ann Angell, as their first president, with two other midwives as her counselors. This council designated a woman in most of the city’s 19 wards “to look after the poor.”4
In the 1870s, after medical practice had advanced following the Civil War and after the railroad had more closely connected Utah with the rest of the country, Church leaders began to consider ways that Saints could receive professional education in the eastern United States. By this time, President Brigham Young had developed greater confidence in scientific medicine and sought to integrate it with healing by faith.5 He turned to Eliza R. Snow and the Relief Society to facilitate women’s formal training as physicians at a time when few American women enjoyed such educational opportunities.6 In 1873 Snow asked the Relief Society women of Ogden, Utah, for volunteers: “Are there here, now, any sisters who have ambition enough, and who realize the necessity of it, for Zion’s sake, to take up this study[?]”7
Women answered the call. In 1877 Romania Pratt became the first Latter-day Saint woman to graduate from medical school at a time when germ theory helped make medical practitioners more effective at preventing and fighting disease.8 Additional women followed Romania’s example, returning home after their schooling to then teach classes in obstetrics and family care. Women like Emma Liljenquist of Hyrum, Utah, were formally set apart as midwives, with their training costs paid by their local Relief Societies.9 In 1882 the Relief Society established the Deseret Hospital in Salt Lake City, where patients could receive treatment from trained physicians as well as healing blessings.10 As medical science continued to advance, Saints in Utah, like their American contemporaries, increasingly sought out professional medical care.