Celebrating America's Women Physicians

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Higher Education
Suggested Reading
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About the Module


Sarah L. Berry earned her doctorate at Syracuse University and is a visiting assistant professor in the English Department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she teaches courses in nineteenth-century literature and literature and medicine. Her research examines women's resistance to medical authority in autobiography and fiction. She is the author of essays and presentations on Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Stoddard, Charlotte Brontë, Hannah Cullwick, and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins. She has authored articles on teaching with archival research (Elizabeth Blackwell) and on teaching in the medical humanities. In her current project, she examines the papers of radical reformers in antebellum Rochester, NY in order to find out how women's health reform influenced social activism (women's rights, abolition), particularly the effects of alternative and home health care practices on political rhetoric in letters, speeches, and sermons.

Suggested Use

The A Medicine of Their Own: The Stories of American Women Healers module can be used in support of classes that approach American literature and history from a variety of angles. Courses on the literature and history of women in the nineteenth-century United States can use this module as one example of how women's entrance into professional medicine was spurred by their participation in social reform. Instructors in the medical humanities can use these class materials to teach on the connections among health history, various forms of writing such as fiction and autobiography, and major social debates over the role of women in medicine. History of medicine classes can use this module to learn about gender and racial disparities in the rise of institutionalized medicine during the nineteenth century.

The biography project offers instructors of literature, history, and medical humanities the opportunity to engage students in primary source research and collaborative writing. The project asks students to identify one woman physician of the nineteenth century and write her biography collectively by each contributing a segment. In conjunction with class readings and discussions, the biography project encourages students to understand the relevance of social context in science history and the goals of representation in biography in order to tell the story of a woman physician. The bibliography offers further readings on a variety of topics for the interested student or teacher, as well as background sources for the suggested biography project.

The module assumes a general familiarity with nineteenth-century history and literature, but does not assume specialized understanding of literary genres, the history of medicine, or specific medical knowledge. This course is adapted from Nineteenth-Century American Women Healers and Literature, a 200-level undergraduate course that does not require students to have specific literary or historical knowledge. Resources have been selected to give instructors and students a good grounding in the issues and contexts of American women's writing and medical professionalism in the nineteenth century.


At the conclusion of a class or the entire module, students are expected to:

  • Demonstrate understanding of women's crucial roles in health and healing as the medical profession developed from the late eighteenth century to the twenty-first century.
  • Apply interpretive skills in reading fictional (plotted) narratives and self-representational autobiographies by and about women healers from 1800-2000, with emphasis on the nineteenth century.
  • Identify relationships among literature and some major debates in women's and health history.
  • Connect stories and autobiographies about women physicians with social contexts, especially gender and race disparities, in American history.
  • Use the above skills to research, using primary or secondary sources, and write a biography of a woman physician.