Wheaton Graduate Becomes First American Female Doctor of Medicine

Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler was the first American woman to receive a medical degree and the first female professor at an American medical college. She was also a lecturer, author, poet and activist for temperance and women’s rights.

Born in Nantucket, MA, on May 5, 1822, Lydia Folger attended Wheaton Female Seminary in 1838-39 and then taught here between 1842 and 1844. An 1879 memorial remembrance in The Daisy: A Journal of Pure Literature characterized her as “an ardent student; but not satisfied with an education which would have made her pre-eminent among her sex.” Some said that she resembled her direct ancestor, Benjamin Franklin.

After her September 1844 marriage to leading American phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler, Lydia began to lecture on phrenology, physiology, anatomy and hygiene to largely female audiences.Eliza Wheaton, who practiced hydropathy and later took electrical treatments and sulfur baths, also seems to have been interested in phrenology. Although no phrenological study of Mrs. Wheaton survives, Lorenzo Fowler did prepare phrenological descriptions of Judge Laban Wheaton and Laban Morey Wheaton while visiting in Norton.

In 1849, when she was 27 years old, Lydia was one of eight women who enrolled in the newly established Central Medical College of Syracuse and Rochester, New York. Her cousin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, assisted her in her quest to enter the school. She was the only female graduate, receiving her medical degree on 5 June 1850 after only a year of study. An “Eclectic,” rather than mainstream, medical school, Central Medical College’s curriculum emphasized the importance of plant remedies, diet and hygiene.

Appointed to the faculty of Central Medical College the following year, Fowler became the first woman professor in an American medical college, serving first as principal of the women’s department and then as professor of midwifery and diseases of women and children. After the college closed in 1852, Lydia established a medical practice in New York City, where she continued to specialize in the health of women and children.

When the Wheatons journeyed to England and the Continent in the spring and summer of 1862, Eliza reported receiving two letters from Lydia as soon as the travelers arrived at their hotel on April 30. As the Fowlers had moved to Britain shortly before the Wheatons’ trip, Lydia was able to provide helpful information about London, fellow Americans in the city and traveling in Great Britain and Europe. Lydia called on the travelers almost immediately after their arrival, and Holman attended a lecture by Lorenzo Fowler. Lydia’s lively disposition and skill as local guide assured her of a position as one of the Wheaton party on the “Darby Day” that neither she nor Mrs. Wheaton were able to speak about afterwards without laughing.

Lydia served as secretary at several women rights conventions, including at Seneca Falls, and was also the presiding officer at the Women’s Grand Temperance Demonstration at Metropolitan Hall.

She wrote a series of books for young people entitled Familiar Lessons on Physiology (1847), Phrenology (1847) and Astronomy (1848) and a variety of other titles, including a temperance novel, Nora: The Lost and Redeemed (1863). Some of her lectures on childcare were collected and issued in The Pet of the Household and How to Save It: Comprised in Twelve Lectures on Physiology (1865). Heart-Melodies, her book of poems, some of which recalled her love of Nantucket, appeared in 1870.

Lydia Folger Fowler died of pleuropneumonia on January 26, 1879, at the age of 56.