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

March 21, 2019

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

Nope! We’re not trading these cards for anything!

March 5, 2019

Dr. Thomas Electric Oil - front

Trade card (front) advertising Dr. Thomas’ Electric Oil, a remedy prepared by Foster, Milburn & Co., Buffalo, NY

When we say “trade cards,” what comes to mind?

Maybe those cards depicting baseball players, with all those tiny numbers on the back? The ones collected and traded by children of all ages?

It may surprise you to know that we have more than 2,600 trade cards! But they have nothing to do with baseball players, and we wouldn’t trade them for anything. They’re part of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine.

Trade card (back)

These late 19th and early 20th century cards advertise patent medicines, mineral waters, dietary supplements, and other health products; everything from breath freshener to Coca-Cola.

The rapid development of new consumer markets in the post-Civil War U.S. created a need for an effective national advertising medium, a need met by the lithographed trade card. Today, these colorful cards offer a glimpse of the society, culture, and economy in which 19th century Americans lived. The fact that these palm-sized pieces of paper have survived for over a hundred years in such excellent condition is amazing.

Over the last four years, we have been scanning the trade cards in this collection and uploading them into UR Research. (Enter Atwater Patent Medicine Trade Cards in the Search field at the top of the page.) All 2,600 cards haven’t been scanned yet, but we’re working on it. We just scanned and uploaded the two-thousandth card.

What’s UR Research?

UR Research is an institutional repository developed and hosted by the River Campus Libraries. It provides storage and access for dissertations, preprints, research data, and similar materials.

UR Research also can provide researchers with a private, secure workspace for collaboration with other researchers. Once you set up your own workspace, you can give controlled access to others.

For questions about UR Research: Use the Contact Us form

Highlights from the History of Medicine: Black History Month

February 8, 2019

This February, as we celebrate Black History Month, we would like to observe the history of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and remember our own Dr. Edwin A. Robinson.

Dr. Edwin A. Robinson

Image shared by the Rare Books & Manuscripts Section at the Institute for Innovate Education’s Edward G. Miner Library.

Originally from Lakes Charles, Louisiana, Dr. Robinson graduated from Cornell University in 1939, prior to arriving at the University of Rochester.  Dr. Robinson graduated from the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1943, and completed his coursework in just three-and-a-half years as part of the accelerated program.  The accelerated program was designed to help get more medics into the field during World War II.  Dr. Robinson served in the army during the war.

Dr. Robinson completed internships at Strong Memorial Hospital, Beth Israel and Harlem Hospitals in New York, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.  After the war, he returned to Rochester where he opened a local practice in 1950 and later served two terms as president of Highland Hospital’s medical staff from 1967 through 1968.  He served on the boards of directors of the Salvation Army and Otetiana Council, Boy Scouts of America.

Dr. Robinson actively recruited black students to the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.  In addition to his work with the University of Rochester, Dr. Robinson spent over three decades helping raise millions of dollars for the Tuskegee Institute at the behest of Booker T. Washington.

We honor Dr. Robinson for his duty to this country during World War II and for his invaluable contributions to our local communities through his work as a physician and his numerous activities in community service.

Going to medical school in the 19th century, you couldn’t get into class without one of these

October 4, 2018

May I have your ticket please?

A student enrolled in any medical school during the 19th century was required to obtain from the registrar a card for each class (or series of lectures) in which he or she desired to enroll. These cards (essentially tickets) validated attendance at lectures, dissections, and rounds in hospital wards.

Within the nation’s medical schools many apprentices and practicing physicians attended lectures alongside medical students without matriculating. The system of lecture tickets made this possible. With roughly 10 to 15 dollars in hand, anybody could purchase admission to a course of lectures directly from the professor, who profited directly from the fees.

Our Rare Books & Manuscripts Section houses a collection of over 200 class cards issued by various American medical schools between 1814 and 1897. 

Medical school class cards are of great interest to the historian. They provide a record of what classes were being taught at a given school in the year issued and who was teaching each class. If a set of cards is complete, it lays out the student’s course of study and how long it took him or her to complete. 


At your finger tips, but not contagious…yellow fever

September 7, 2018

Now you can flip through the pages of our Yellow Fever Collection from anywhere, via the New York Heritage digital collections site.

Yup! Right from where you’re sitting.

And we’re pretty excited. And proud.

It’s taken a bunch of us over two years to make this happen. And we couldn’t have done it without a generous gift from Ranlet and Beth Miner, and technical guidance from Rochester Regional Library Council.

Yellow fever was one of the two most virulent epidemic diseases in 18th and 19th century United States, the other being cholera. And our Yellow Fever Collection is one of the largest and finest anywhere in the world. It contains more than 400 works, published between 1741 and 1914, representing the development of medical thought on yellow fever over the course of a century and a half.

Yellow fever broke out in Boston in 1693; Philadelphia in 1793; Norfolk, Virginia, in 1855; and the Mississippi River Valley in 1878. The yellow fever epidemic impacted nearly all aspects of life in affected cities as residents fled, economies suffered, and thousands died.

Oil painting by Juan Manual Blanes

Painting by Juan Manuel Blanes, 1871 (Wellcome Collection)

Imagine the horror.

You step outside one morning and 1 out of 10 of your neighbors lies dead or dying.

Your world is upside down.

No one can agree on what’s causing the deaths or how to prevent them.

How will you survive in a city turned frantic with disease?

This was scene during the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, when it was struck with the worst outbreak of yellow fever ever recorded in North America.

At the time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and its busiest port. Between August 1 and November 9, 1793, approximately 11,000 people contracted yellow fever. Five thousand people (10% of the city’s population) died. The epidemic created panic in the capital, causing 17,000 people, including President Washington and other members of the federal government, to flee to the countryside.

The disease gets its name from the jaundiced eyes and skin of the victims. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and “black vomit” caused by bleeding into the stomach. At the time, it was thought that yellow fever was caused by rotting vegetable matter.

The collection is a fascinating study on the confusion of 18th century physicians when confronted with a new and deadly malady; the static debates between contagionists and non-contagionists during the 19th century; early attempts to identify a bacterial agent; and the consequences of Walter Reed’s discovery of a mosquito vector.

It also provides a view into the panicked efforts of local, state, and national government to respond to yellow fever’s introduction and to check its spread; and to religious leaders’ fervent warnings of pestilence as punishment for public sins.

Rather than keep this outstanding and increasingly fragile collection locked up, why not share it with you and the rest of the world?

And that’s what we did.


P.S. There is no record of yellow fever ever having occurred in Rochester or in the Genesee River Valley.

This article was submitted by Susan Andersen.


The Founding Fathers and Medicine

June 29, 2017

As we head into the July 4 holiday, we thought it would be interesting and fun to take a look at the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) and their interactions with medicine at their time. And, even how their influence extends into modern medicine.

George Washington

In December 1799, George Washington awoke in the early morning with pain and shortness of breath. Before the day was over, Washington was dead. What caused this otherwise healthy and active man’s death? Could it have been his doctors? For his ailment, Washington was treated with bloodletting and enemas (common treatments at the time).

PBS Newshour: The Agonizing Last Hours of George Washington

Washington Papers at the University of Virginia

National Constitution Center – The Mysterious Death of George Washington

Thomas Jefferson

According to Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Jefferson was deeply interested, though skeptical, of medicine. Despite his skepticism, he was an early advocate smallpox inoculation. Also, he actively developed medical education, supported measures for public health, and encouraged scientific research supported by the government without policy intervention. Jefferson was known to suffer from chronic headaches early in his life and later on was bothered by rheumatism.

Monticello: Medicine Contributions of Thomas Medicine to American Medicine

John and Abigail Adams

In 1776 the American colonies were fighting more than the British. A horrendous smallpox epidemic was brutalizing the Boston area. At the time, the smallpox inoculation was highly controversial. Abigail Adams made the agonizing decision to have her four children inoculated against the deadly disease. All of the children had some reaction to the procedure, ranging from mild to an extensive eruption, yet everyone recovered. John Adams would go on to become the second president of the United States and their eldest son, John Quincy Adams, became the nation’s sixth president.

Abigail Adams, Smallpox, and the Spirit of 1776

Benjamin Franklin

Inventor, author, businessman, politician, diplomat and all-around visionary, Benjamin Franklin’s influence extended to medicine as well. Franklin had a role in the development of the first medical school in the United States. He understood how the common cold was passed from person to person. He correctly understood the nature of psoriasis and was aware of the placebo effect. He also identified the dangers of lead. Franklin put his innovative mind to work and devised a flexible urethral catheter.




There’s something new in history…

October 6, 2016

…our History of Medicine reading room, that is.

Thanks to the generosity of Richard I. Burton, M.D., we have two, exquisite display cabinets. Dr. Burton also donated a collection of historical portraits and books, collected by him and his father, Kenneth G. Burton, M.D. (1905-1988).Illustration by Vesalius

We plan to unveil some of the 17th- to 19th-century framed prints from the Burton gift along with selections from our own rare book collection.

Currently on display is our first edition (1543) of Andreas Vesalius’ De fabrica corporis humani. This is the most important medical book published during the Renaissance and one of the most influential illustrated books in any discipline or period.

Our copy of the Fabrica is on display (M-F, 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.) with a 19th-century engraved print from the Burton collection depicting Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) performing a dissection.

Lithograph of VesaliusEdouard Hamman’s 1849 painting, reproduced as a lithograph by Adolphe Mouilleron in the early 1850s, suggests Vesalius’s conscientious struggle with religion. Religious and cultural forces opposed dissection in Vesalius’s time.

He is pictured as if conflicted in thought, looking at a crucifix on the wall to his right. A skull and several large books suggest his research materials. His dissecting tools and research materials are at hand.

In the coming months we’ll be showing you more treasures from these collections, now that we have an environmentally safe and secure location to do so.  Thank you, Dr. Burton!