A physician and public health reformer, Helen Cordelia Putnam, M.D., was an early advocate of prenatal and neonatal care for low-income families. She championed improved standards of hygiene and cleanliness in schools, and worked for women's right to vote and better treatment of the mentally ill.
Helen Cordelia Putnam was born on September 14, 1857, in Stockton, Minnesota. She was the daughter of Herbert Asa Putnam, a general store owner, and Celintha T. Gates Putnam, a Sunday-school teacher. Her parents were among the first settlers to cross the Mississippi River in 1855. After her early education in a one-room school, Helen Putnam graduated from Vassar College in 1878. She then enrolled in Harvard University's Sargent School of Physical Training and, after graduating in 1883, returned to Vassar as director of physical education. She served as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Physical Education from 1885 to 1888.
She then enrolled at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, specializing in obstetrics and women's diseases, and earned her doctor of medicine degree in 1889, interning at Boston's New England Hospital for Women and Children from 1890 to 1891. In 1892 she moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where she practiced gynecology for the next forty-three years.
Dr. Putnam was an early advocate of prenatal care for low-income mothers and lobbied for government inspection of dairies and milk-bottling plants. After attending an international conference in London in 1907, she resolved to improve survival rates for babies in the first year of life. As president of the American Academy of Medicine, she helped plan a 1909 conference on infant mortality, which led to the founding of the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality.
Between 1909 and 1912, Dr. Putnam wrote a series of articles for Child-Welfare Magazine, the journal of the National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teacher Associations, in which she encouraged parents to take a more active role in promoting hygienic schools. The articles were the basis of her 1913 book, School Janitors, Mothers and Health, which promoted physical education and exercise as key to children's health, and the importance of a clean learning environment. In 1923, with Dr. Abraham Jacobi, Dr. Putnam co-founded the American Child Health Association to promote clean schools, children's health care, and teaching health- and sex-education with parental involvement.
Dr. Putnam was also dedicated to improving women's physical and political welfare. She served on the board of managers of the Rhode Island Women's Suffrage Association, was secretary of a conference to promote women's prison reform in Rhode Island.
Dr. Putnam chaired the National Education Association's Committee on Racial Well-Being, and served on the boards of the Playground Association of America, the International Union for the Protection of Infants, and the American School Hygiene Association. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Medicine and was a member the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Dr. Putnam retired in 1935, and in 1939 donated most of a sizable inheritance to Providence's Butler Hospital and the Rhode Island School of Design. She also helped establish the Helen Putnam Fellowship for Advanced Research at Radcliffe College and a fellowship in honor of pioneering physician Marie Zakrzewska at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Putnam died at age 93 on February 3, 1951.