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A Suffragist, Abolitionist, and the First Female to Apply to Harvard Medical School

Harriet Kezia Hunt was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1805. Her parents educated her at home. When their father died in 1827, it left the family with no financial support. Harriet and her sister Sarah opened a private school in their home. While the little school brought in some financial help, Harriet knew that this was not what she wanted to do with her life.

Not long after the school opened, Sarah fell ill and none of the doctors' usual treatments were helping her. They subjected her to a long and unsuccessful treatment that included blisters, prussic acid, calomel and leaches. Dr. Richard Dixon Mott and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived in Boston from England and began treating patients, including Sarah. Under their care, Sarah achieved a complete recovery.

Harriet and Sarah closed the school and studied medicine in 1933, under the husband and wife team, the Motts. They used rather uncommon methods that proved very effective in restoring health. Harriet worked closely with Elizabeth Mott, who treated most of Dr. Mott’s female patients.

In 1835, Harriet and Sarah opened their own consulting room, without medical diplomas. They stressed cleanliness, healthy diets, rest, and exercise. They treated women and children and were often successful where physicians had failed. The two often received requests to treat “given up cases” from all over the Boston area, and “chronic diseases of the aggravated character.” Often the sisters discovered “physical maladies growing out of concealed sorrows.” They treated the whole patient, physical and emotional/mental.

Sarah retired after she married in 1940, but Harriet continued her practice alone. After twelve years of practice, Harriet became the first woman to apply to Harvard Medical School. The Dean of the school was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Initially, he viewed her application favorably and considered accepting it. However, the all-male student body, university overseers, and faculty members severely criticized him, leading to the withdrawal of her application.

Two years later Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva College with her M.D., the first woman to do so. This encouraged Harriet and she applied to Harvard Medical School again. Of course, they denied it again, and for many years following Harriet’s application and the application of other women continued to be denied. Despite the denials, Harriet continued to practice medicine at her clinic. She had an excellent reputation and became widely known and respected. In 1853, Harriet received an Honorary Doctor of Medicine, from the Female Medical College in Pennsylvania.

Finally! In 1945, Harvard Medical School admitted its first class of women. They referred to it as a "trial measure" to gauge the productivity and achievements of female students, both during and after medical school. We must note that a decreased number of male applicants resulting from World War II led to the admission of these women.

Throughout the years, Harriet was criticized, particularly by those who believed that her “profession,” was unsuitable for a woman. In 1858, the New York Times wrote a scathing article of criticism because she was “one of the dozen women in the United States who pine because Nature did not make them men.” In response, Harriet asked, “what could be more delicately feminine, more truly womanly, that to take the hand of a sister, afflicted in body and mind, and to show her the cause of her diseases?”

Over the years, Harriet was always a powerful advocate for women in medicine. She called the time she was living in the “age of transition.” She toured, giving lectures on physiology and hygiene. In 1850, Harriet attended the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was an avid supporter of and very outspoken for the cause of suffrage. Harriet also lectured whenever she could on the evils of slavery and advocation for its abolition.

For twenty years Harriet dutifully paid her taxes, but always with an accompanying note of protestation that addressed “taxation of a woman’s property and income when she was not allowed to vote.”


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