Sue Young Histories

Mary Jane Safford 1831 - 1891

December 17, 2007

saffordMary Jane Safford 1831 - 1891 trained at the homeopathic New York Medical College for Women, the General Hospital in Vienna, the University of Breslau in Poland and the *Allgemeines Krankenhaus in Vienna.

Safford worked at the homeopathic Boston University School of Medicine and she was a Staff Physician at the Massachusetts Homeopathic Hospital.

Safford was an ardent supporter women’s dress reform and she lectured with Mercy B Jackson and Caroline Hastings on this issue, and Safford was also an active member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union.

For corrections to the many errors in the information in my own poor effort in this biography please do consult Elizabeth Coachman’s newly published biography of Mary Jane Safford 26.4.18:

from age 3 in 1849, following her parents’ death, family members secured her education at an academy in Bakersfield, Vt., then allowed her to travel in Canada to learn French and act as governess to a German-speaking family to acquire skill in German.

Mary Safford was born on December 31, 1834, in Hyde Park, Vermont, but grew up from the age of three in Crete, Illinois. During the 1850s, she taught school …* successively in Joliet, Shawneetown, and Cairo, Illinois.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861, Cairo became a town of some strategic importance because of its situation at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The town was quickly occupied by volunteer troops from Chicago, and almost as quickly a variety of epidemic diseases broke out in the hastily constructed camps behind the levee.

Safford began visiting the camps to tend the sick and to distribute food she had prepared. She gradually won the respect of officers and surgeons who had initially opposed her, (Safford became known as the Cairo Angel) and she was soon permitted to draw upon supplies collected and forwarded by the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

By summer she was working closely with “Mother” Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who gave her some training in nursing. In November 1861 Safford nursed the wounded on the battlefield at Belmont, Missouri.

In February 1862 she and Mary Ann Bickerdyke helped transport wounded from Fort Donelson to Cairo, and in April that year, following the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) in southwestern Tennessee, she worked aboard the hospital ship Hazel Dell.

By that time her almost ceaseless labors had left her utterly exhausted, and she saw no more service during the war. After an extended convalescent tour of Europe, Safford returned to the United States determined to become a physician.

But after caring for the Shiloh wounded, Mary Jane suffered a complete breakdown and was confined to her bed for several months. At her brother’s urging, she accompanied the family of former Illinois governor Joel Matteson on a lengthy European vacation to recuperate.

*The family of former Illinois Governor Joel A. Matteson was traveling to Europe in July 1862 and Mary Safford joined them. Mary’s first cousin was married to the sister of Joel A Matteson’s wife so Mary was actually relative by marriage. Mary spoke German and French and likely was helpful in translation for these folks as well as helpful in minding their younger daughters.

*Safford travelled to Vienna to study at the University and in Allgemeines Krankenhaus hospital. She studied there with such greats as Rokitansky, Freund, Oppolzer, Spaeth and Waldeyer. and she then spent a short amount of time in Breslau where she performed what is said to have been the first successful ovariotomy (oophorectomy in current terms) by a woman.

*While Mary was in Europe she had experiences which made her decide to become a physician. Fall of 1866 she enrolled at Dr. Clemence Lozier’s New York Medical College for Women and was graduated in March of 1869.

*In 1871 Mary Safford returned to the U. S. and went to Chicago where she opened a practice (reputedly, though records were lost in the Chicago fire of Oct 1871).

*She also joined the faculty of the newly formed Evanston College for Ladies as instructor in health. This eventually became part of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago.

*Sept 25, 1872, Mary Safford married Gorham Blake of Boston, and they moved to Dorchester, just next to Boston. In 1873 she joined the newly formed homeopathic Boston University School of Medicine as one of the first 5 female faculty members alongside Mercy B Jackson and Caroline Hastings.

*In 1874 she gave lectures on dress reform—report of the lectures by Dr. Safford and other female physicians is in the book by Abba Goold Woolson.

*In 1875 Dr. Safford was elected to the Boston School Committee—one of the first women on that.

*In 1879—Mary Safford served her husband Gorham with divorce papers on a basis of desertion---seems reasonable since she had the papers served on him in Georgia!

*1882—Her brother Anson Peasely Killen (also known as A. P. K., I’ve also seen his 3rd name as Keeler) Safford moved to Tarpon Springs, FL for the winters as part of a syndicate selling land from what was called the Disston Purchase.

*Mary Safford started spending some of her winter time in FL and with Dr. Fidelia Jane Merrick Whitcomb started operating the Tarpon Springs Hotel as a health spa.

*Dr. Fidelia Jane Merrick Whitcomb came from Nunda, NY, was a student of Dr. Safford’s at Boston University School of Medicine but was nearly the same age as Dr. Safford. Dr. Safford had been her preceptor at Boston University School of Medicine and apparently the ladies were good friends.

*The hotel operated from mid-fall through May 1 each year. On April 1, 1888, Dr. Whitcomb died in Tarpon Springs and is buried there.

*Dr. Safford continued to have her home in Boston until about 1886, but she seemed to move about quite a bit between Boston, FL, and North Carolina.

Safford retired from medical practice in 1886 and a short time later moved to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where she died on December 8, 1891.

*In 1891 Safford died of unspecified cause though she had just returned from NC in November, reputedly went to her bed with no hope of recovery and died December 8th.

Safford enjoyed cordial relations with her male orthodox colleagues even at a time when the controversy about homeopathy was raging, Safford consulted with, and was referred patients by regular doctors ‘… and I have operated once for him while he assisted.’

Safford was a member of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, and Anna Howard Shaw was full of admiration for her work amongst Boston’s poor and for her activism on women’s rights, as was Martha George Ripley.

*Safford also raised 3 children (not hers) in the 1880s and belonged to many different social reform organizations.

  • Safford did not live with APK Safford before the Civil War (he left the IL home for the CA gold fields in 1850)

*With thanks to Elizabeth Coachman, researcher and re-enactor for Dr. Mary Safford 22.4.08


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