Celebrating Women Physicians as Part of Church Heritage

Romania Pratt, Margaret Roberts and Ellis Shipp were all physicians and members of the church in the late 1800s
Jared Jones

Jared Jones

In honor of National Women Physicians Day, let's look back on the importance of women physicians in Latter-day Saint Church history.

Today is National Women Physicians Day. It is observed on February 3 each year on the birthday of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell–the first woman in the United States to become a Medical Doctor. Although the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates practicing physicians are still mostly male as a whole, a survey by Athena Health showed 60 percent of physicians under 35 are women. In a 2019 report the American Association of Medical Colleges  found 50.5 % of medical students were women. (Source: Washington Post)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a history of promoting women in medicine. For many years, Brigham Young was skeptical of medical professionals, but as practices improved and legitimate medical science emerged he recognized the need for trained medical professionals in Utah. He sent one of his own sons east to attend medical school. Eliza R. Snow expressed the need for women to be trained in medicine and be armed with the same degrees and education as men.

Brigham Young agreed and made the following announcement in 1873:

“If some women had the privilege of studying they would make as good mathematicians as any man. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes, and raise babies, but that they should study law . . . or physics . . . . The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.”

Many women heeded the call and built lifelong careers in the west practicing medicine.

Romania Pratt, Margaret Roberts and Ellis Shipp were all physicians and members of the church in the late 1800s

Romania Pratt was the first to receive an M.D. She became an eye and ear surgeon and is credited with performing the first cataract surgery in the Utah Territory. When financial difficulties threatened the continuation of her studies President Young arranged scholarship support so she could continue.

Ellis Ship also moved east and attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She felt it was only through the “interposition of Providence” that she was able to pass through the ordeal of medical school. She even roomed with Dr. Pratt at one point and completed part of her last year and a half in medical school while pregnant. She built a practice in obstetrics and general care in Utah.

Margaret Roberts was actually Ellis Ship’s sister. She began her education after Dr. Ship completed hers. Dr. Roberts actually helped care for Dr. Ship’s children while Dr. Ship attended medical school. She helped found a nursing and midwifery school under the direction of the Relief Society.

Many other women became medical doctors and returned to Utah to improve healthcare to all residents. Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon was also the first female Utah State Senator. Dr. Ellen Brook Ferguson set up private practice in Provo. Female physicians also trained others to provide medical care and made a mark on the church and its people.

My wife is one of these women. We met and married in her last year of medical school. She completed a year of internal medicine at a New York City hospital and then did 3 years of anesthesia residency and a year of pediatric anesthesia fellowship in Boston. She served her country as an anesthesiologist in the Air Force including a 6 month tour in Iraq while our first child turned 3 years old. I am proud of her excellent work as well as the work of all her female physician colleagues and friends. I am proud of the heritage we all share that encouraged women to learn.

Happy Women Physicians (in Church History and Present) Day!

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