Dr. Alice Bennett improved the treatment of women patients with mental illness by abolishing restraints and introducing occupational therapy at the state hospital where she served as superintendent. In 1880 she became the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman superintendent of the women's section of the State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pennsylvania. In 1890 she was the first woman to be elected president of the Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) Medical Society.
Alice Bennett was born in 1851 in Wrentham, Massachusetts, to Lydia Hayden and Isaac Francis Bennett, a blacksmith. She was the youngest of their six children. After teaching school locally for four years, she attended the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the first school anywhere in the world to offer a medical course and degree to women.
After earning her M.D. degree in 1876, Alice Bennett worked in a dispensary in the Philadelphia slums until being appointed later that year to teach anatomy at her alma mater. For the next four years she taught and maintained a private practice while working toward a Ph.D. in anatomy. In 1880, she crossed two historic barriers, receiving the first Ph.D. degree ever awarded to a woman by the University of Pennsylvania and becoming superintendent of the women's section of the newly opened State Hospital for the Insane in Norristown, Pennsylvania. She was the first woman appointed to such a position in the state.
In the 19th century, the mentally ill were often kept confined with little medical treatment. Some were even restrained in straitjackets or chains. Dr. Bennett abolished this practice in her institution, contending that such restraints were ineffective and would only result in a patient's anger and resentment. She theorized that checking patients' energy in one direction by physically constraining them would drive that energy to another outlet. She believed that restraints contradicted ethical treatment, one based on mutual respect between patient and caregiver. Dr. Bennett also introduced occupational therapy, such as music, painting, and handicrafts, to the Norristown hospital. Other hospitals for the mentally ill adopted this practice and her policy of non-restraint, winning her widespread professional recognition.
In 1890, the Montgomery County Medical Society in Pennsylvania elected her to be their first woman president. She was also a member of the American Medical Association, the Philadelphia Neurological Society, and the Philadelphia Medical Jurisprudence Society, and was one of the original incorporators of the Spring Garden Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. After sixteen years as superintendent, Bennett returned to private practice in her hometown of Wrentham. From 1910 until her death in 1925, Dr. Bennett donated her services as the head of the outpatient department of obstetrics in the historic New York Infirmary for Women and Children founded by Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.