Women and Health Care in the 19th Century

Since March is officially Women’s History Month, the next few postings will focus on little known women – no trotting out of the icons such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Eleanor Roosevelt here.  While such women are worthy objects of study, I am going to discuss women whose lives were lived quietly but made a difference in their communities.

In Elmira, New York, there is a road called “Watercure Hill”.   What was a Watercure? It was a type of medical practice focused on holistic healing, particularly employing hydrotherapy.   The Finger Lakes region of upstate New York was dotted with mineral springs and fresh water lakes, so this type of alternative medicine had a number of practitioners in the region.   The “Watercure” for which the Elmira road is named was formally known as the “Elmira Water Cure”, and it was opened in 1852 by Dr. Silas Gleason and his wife Dr. Rachel Gleason.   Rachel Gleason was a fascinating woman;  while Elizabeth Blackwell got a great deal of attention for earning a medical degree from Geneva Medical College in   1849, perhaps less well known were the dozens of women who followed her into medical schools in parts of the Northeast, including Rochester, New York’s Central Medical College.   Rachel Gleason graduated from that school in 1851, but she, like Blackwell, quickly realized they were not welcome by the male-dominated medical establishment.  She also was very sensitive to the needs of female patients, whose health concerns were often marginalized by male doctors.  It is no coincidence that many early female physicians in this country founded their own hospitals or clinics – traditional hospitals and medical practices often refused to grant them admitting privileges or accept them as equals.

Hydrotherapy was a medical practice that had been introduced at the end of the 18th century;  fresh water was considered by many to have curative qualities, not only for the body but for the mind.   This form of treatment became very popular in the mid-nineteenth century in the northeastern states as the early stages of the Industrial Revolution began to create stress-related injuries and illnesses.  It also appealed to women, many of them frustrated with the limitations put on them.    Famous women such as Catherine Beecher and her younger sister Harriet Beecher Stowe were staunch advocates of this therapy (in fact, little known fact, but Catherine Beecher died while resting at the Gleason’s Watercure!).   Of course, the medical establishment disputed the health benefits of this therapy, often terming it “quackery”, but the success of various spas and hydrotherapy clinics, including the famous and elegant spa at  Saratoga, demonstrate that many people found this practice helpful.  Another indicator of the popularity of this medical therapy is the publication of its own newspaper!Watercure Journal

The Gleasons’s Watercure served the needs of thousands of people;  their services included nutritional counseling, exercise routines, and rest and relaxation to soothe the mind and spirit (sounds like the promotional literature for a modern day spa!).   The clinic closed only in 1898 with Rachel Gleason’s death.

Gleason Health Resort

Another hydropathic center in the Finger Lakes region was the Greene Sanitarium, founded in 1849 by Mr. Jabez Greene.  His daughter, Dr. Cordelia Greene, expanded the services at this clinic when she took over as director in 1864. Located in Castile, New York, 30 miles south of Rochester,   the success of the Greene Sanitarium is demonstrated by the longevity of it:  after Dr. Cordelia’s death in 1905, her niece, Dr. Mary Greene, then directed the sanitarium until her own death in 1957.   Both of the female doctors were well-respected for their holistic approach to health care.   They cared for a variety of patients, but women’s health care was their specialty.

I now have a female primary care physician, but my first physician was a man, and not an easy man to talk to – at one point, when I indicated to him that I was showing signs of depression and anxiety, he suggested that I have a baby to cheer myself up!!!!   Women doctors like Rachel Gleason and the Greenes helped fill a terrible void in women’s health care by offering alternative therapies to help their clients lead less stressful lives in a changing America.





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