Women’s History Month: Women in Medicine, Rochester, NY

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, let’s take a look at the important contributions of women in medicine in Rochester, NY.

In January 1887 the Provident Dispensary was opened for business. It provided free medical care for women and children and was operated solely by women physicians. The clinic was located on Front Street in the city of Rochester by the Genesee River. Rochester City Council supplied Provident Dispensary with three rent free rooms and a $100 budget. The rest of their funds came from private donors.

During this time, dispensaries were founded to meet the needs of urban, working poor families. Dispensaries held clinic hours and made home visits. Beyond medical needs, they met the social needs of their patients, helping them find employment, providing food and clothing, and teaching about hygiene and sanitation. Unlike other dispensaries, Provident Dispensary was founded specifically to serve women and children.

Provident Dispensary was established in conjunction with the Practitioner’s Society, a medical society for women in Rochester. Women physicians during this time period were largely excluded from practicing in hospitals. Provident Dispensary gave women the chance to practice medicine, maintain their skills, and care for poor women and children, a core value of their mission.

In addition to the physicians, there was 15 member Advisory Board of laywomen recruited from area churches and synagogues. Members of the Advisory Committee encouraged poor women from their churches and neighborhoods to seek medical care at the dispensary.

Provident Dispensary met critical medical needs for a decade. However, it closed its doors after 10 years. Financially, it never stood on solid ground. The decision to close was also likely based on the emergence of hospital outpatient clinics that served marginalized areas and women physicians were beginning to find inroads to hospital practice.

Even with Provident Dispensary closure, the founders still found ways to maintain their founding philosophy through the establishment of evening clinics for the working poor and charity wards in hospitals.

Remembering the shoulders that we stand on, the founders of Provident Dispensary were: Drs. Sarah Dolley, Mary Stark, Anna Searing, Harriet Turner, Eveline Ballintine, Frances Hamilton, Lettie Woodruff, Sarah Perry, Mary Brownell, Marion Craig, Mary Slaight, and Minerva Palmer.

If you would like to know more about Dr. Sarah Dolley, you can read her profile in Changing the Face of Medicine. She was the third woman to graduate from medical school in the United States and the first to complete a hospital internship. Dr. Dolley was also active in the suffrage movement.  

Learn more:

Restoring the Balance: Women Physicians and the Profession of Medicine 1850-1995.

History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York: From the Earliest Historic Times to the Beginning of 1907, Volume 1

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