Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners: Gender and Healing Authority in the Mid-Atlantic Region, 1740-1830

Susan Brandt Temple University 2011-2012 Dissertation Research Fellow Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners: Gender and Healing Authority in the Mid-Atlantic Region, 1740-1830 Abstract. My dissertation uncovers women healers’ hidden practices and their vital role in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century mid-Atlantic American healthcare marketplace. Although their contribution to the healthcare labor force is relatively invisible, laywomen healers provided free or affordable healthcare for family, neighbors, and impoverished people in their communities. Nevertheless, apart from a few monographs like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1991), women healers’ authority, practices, social status, and therapeutic roles remain understudied. I challenge the current historiography that marginalizes female practitioners and narrates their declining medical authority due to the rise of enlightened science, male-authored medical texts, man-midwifery, and clinical-anatomical education in the increasingly numerous medical schools. Instead, I argue that women found new sources of healing authority in female education, manuscript authorship, the culture of sensibility, martial masculinity, access to print media, and the antiauthoritarianism of republicanism and dissenting religious sects. I examine their expanding as well as constricting spheres of expertise, which varied across class and racial lines and reflected socio-cultural transformations. I analyze how a flourishing transatlantic self-help medical print culture and a consumer-driven healthcare marketplace empowered women healers. Understanding the flexibility of early America’s medical marketplace and the contingencies inherent in the development of its later top-down healthcare system provides important antecedents to the current healthcare crisis. To investigate these topics, I analyze women healers’ recipe books, papers, and material objects alongside newspapers, almanacs, alchemical tracts, published herbals, dispensatories, city directories, and male healers’ papers to recover the ways that female practitioners constructed healing authority, provided health care, and circulated medical knowledge in their communities and across transatlantic spaces. I read across the grain of these sources to understand the practices and authority of non-literate white, African American, and American Indian women healers. I scrutinize women’s recipe books both as texts and as material culture objects that were shared and passed down among female and male kin, reinforcing women’s healing expertise. Report:Few American historians have mined women’s recipe books as significant medical history sources, as they are often poorly catalogued and buried in dispersed collections of family papers. The dearth of women’s medical recipe books and papers has contributed to American female healers’ misleading invisibility. To recover women practitioners’ lives and practices, my dissertation has required extensive research at over twenty archives in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and London. The PACHS fellowship allowed me the flexibility to pursue research at six PACHS-affiliated institutions. By analyzing these archives’ significant holdings, I hope to shift historians’ thinking regarding women healers’ importance. At Princeton’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library, I examined documents from the William Vans Murray Collection and the Morris Family Correspondence, as well as recipe books, commonplace books, and a woman’s mid-eighteenth century memorandum book. These collections offer insights into New Jersey’s medical marketplace, which included networks of women healers, postpartum nurses, university and apprentice-trained physicians, smallpox inoculators, bleeders, and nostrum-selling “beggar doctors.” Princeton is one of a few American archives that holds the microform of Sara Pennell’s Women and Medicine: Remedy Books, 1533-1865. This collection of over 260 manuscript recipe books from London’s Wellcome Library provides transatlantic comparisons between women healers’ practices in England and America. Holdings at the College of Physicians include Philadelphia healer Elizabeth Coates Paschall’s recipe book, and a related woman’s recipe book, the papers of physicians George de Benneville, Thomas Parke, and Isaac Hayes, and the multi-volume business ledger book of prominent Quaker physicians Thomas and Phineas Bond. These documents demonstrated interactions between laywomen practitioners and physicians, and the similarities in their practices and medical world view. The Bonds’ ledgers also helped me to consider the business of medicine and its importance to the family economies of women healers as well as physicians. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I continued previous research on Delaware Valley healers Elizabeth Coates Paschall and Margaret Hill Morris using the Coates and Reynell Family Papers, the Cox-Parrish-Wharton Papers, and the Thomas Stewardson Letters. I also completed research on the Peale and Wister family recipe books at the American Philosophical Society, which offered insights into domestic healing and the transmission of health information between female family members. John Pollack, librarian at Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, helped me track down American and English recipe books. Several of these manuscripts demonstrate the persistence of domestic medicine and home production into early nineteenth-century America. At the Library Company of Philadelphia, I analyzed an almanac from a woman healer’s family library, and eighteenth-century medical and pharmaceutical books that healer Elizabeth Coates Paschall consulted. Female practitioners enhanced their traditional authority by reading and synthesizing printed medical and scientific sources. My PACHS Fellowship research provided new insights into the extent of women’s healing work within and outside their households. My findings confirm literate women healers’ appropriation of print media and the complex networks of health information that female practitioners exchanged with non-physician healers and doctors. I will use this material as I map webs of healing information and create a comparative database on women healers’ diagnoses and remedies. PACHS has enriched my scholarship beyond research opportunities. I have participated in PACHS-sponsored seminars and working groups. These programs provided opportunities to share my work and to connect with networks of scholars in the history of science and medicine. After seeing my abstract on the PACHS website, Justina Barrett, Museum Educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, contacted me regarding an interpretive planning project for Cedar Grove, the country house built by healer/merchant Elizabeth Coates Paschall in 1748. I look forward to consulting on this innovative project. I will provide scholarly analysis of Paschall’s medical recipe book and papers, and will assist in the development of public history programs on history of medicine and health-related topics that creatively engage the general public and students in healthcare fields. PACHS creates stronger interdisciplinary ties between science and humanities scholars in the Philadelphia area. I have appreciated the opportunity to participate in the PACHS Fellowship program.

Susan Brandt