Lydia Folger Fowler 1822 - 1879
May 22, 2008
Lydia Folger Fowler 1822 -1879 graduated from the Central Medical College of New York in 1848 and the Eclectic Central Medical College in Rochester in 1850, which actually makes her the first woman in America to qualify as a physician, one year earlier than Elizabeth Blackwell.
However, as her qualifications were from Eclectic Colleges, this apparently does not count!
However, Lydia was the first woman to hold a chair at a legally authorized school when appointed Professor of Midwifery and Diseases of Women and Children at the Rochester Eclectic Medical College, and the first woman to address the New York Eclectic Medical Society.
Lydia Folger Fowler was the cousin of Phebe Ann (Coffin) Hanaford who wrote Lucretia the Quakeress (1853), an antislavery tract inspired by her Nantucket cousin, the famous abolitionist and Quaker Lucretia Coffin Mott. Phebe Hanaford was married to Dr. Joseph Hanaford, a native of Newton, Massachusetts, and a homeopathic physician, medical writer, and teacher.
Lucretia Coffin Mott, became her confidante and assisted Lydia in her quest to enter medical school. Lydia was a woman ahead of her time. Long before she received her degree in medicine she was known and respected as a lecturer and writer on anatomy, hygiene, and physiology.
She was full of energy and traveled extensively with her husband to address large audiences of women waiting to learn about hygiene and the care of children. Those were the days when bathing was not a regular part of daily living and most people were unaware of the benefits of soap and water in the prevention of disease and the promotion of good health and vitality.
A group of upstate New York medical men, characterized as “eclectics,” organized the Central Medical College of New York in Syracuse. This first chartered medical school to offer coeducation opened its doors to one hundred students on November 5, 1849.
Lydia was one of the eight women enrolled. Among her fellow students were Myra King Merrick, cofounder of the Homeopathic Hospital and Medical College for Women, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Sarah Adamson Dolley, who was later elected to the Rochester Academy of Science.
Lydia practiced for eleven years in New York and was highly regarded as a doctor, lecturer and medical social writer. Lydia lectured widely on phrenology, anatomy and physiology, hygiene, marriage, eugenics, temperance and other reform issues. She lectured at Seneca Falls in 1852 and she lectured as part of the Ladies Physiological Society alongside Mary Gove Nichols and Harriet Hunt.
Lydia also championed the education of women in medicine, and in 1860-61 she studied medicine in Paris and in London. In 1862, Lydia became an instructor at Russell Thacker Trall’s New York Hygieo Therapeutic College.
In 1863, Lydia moved to London with her family to live, where she died in 1879.
A sixth-generation descendant of Peter Folger (1618-1690), Lydia Folger was born in Nantucket on May 5, 1822, the daughter of Gideon and Eunice Macy Folger.
Lucretia Coffin Mott and Maria Mitchell were her cousins. Benjamin Franklin and Walter Folger Jr. (an eccentric and famous astronomer and navigator), were included in her family line; educators, scientists, reformers, inventors - all contributors to humanity with their diversity and talents.
When she was awarded her M.D. degree from Central Medical College of New York on June 5, 1850, this daughter of Nantucket became only the second woman to earn a medical degree in this country and the first American-born woman to do so.
Lydia grew up on Nantucket and was educated in the local schools. One of her teachers was William Mitchell, her uncle and Maria Mitchell’s father. Following her island schooling she attended Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, in 1838 and later taught there from 1842 to 1844.
In September of 1844 Lydia married Lorenzo Niles Fowler, of New York City, in Nantucket. Fowler was a noted phrenologist of the day. The “science” of phrenology, the study of the relationship of the shape of the cranium to intellect and personality, was an antecedent of modern psychology and the subject of widespread interest at that time.
Tradition has it that, on Lydia’s wedding day, her uncle, Walter Folger Jr., had Fowler “read” the bumps on his head. Folger was declared to be a man possessed of an ego almost as great as his genius.
Lorenzo Niles Fowler became one of the most positive influences in Lydia’s life. Their letters and journals reveal that they were a loving, compatible couple, working side by side in an arena of mutual respect and devotion to their professions.
Jessie Allen Fowler was born sixteen years after Lydia and Lorenzo were married. She was born in New York and died there in 1932. She studied in London and, in 1901, graduated from New York University’s Women’s Law Class. She never married, and dedicated her life to carrying on her father’s work in phrenology.
Lydia’s other two daughters, Amelia and Lydia, died young. One of Lydia’s most poignant poems is on the death of Amelia.
Lydia was a woman ahead of her time. Long before she received her degree in medicine she was known and respected as a lecturer and writer on anatomy, hygiene, and physiology. She was full of energy and traveled extensively with her husband to address large audiences of women waiting to learn about hygiene and the care of children.
Those were the days when bathing was not a regular part of daily living and most people were unaware of the benefits of soap and water in the prevention of disease and the promotion of good health and vitality.
In 1847 the publishing house of Fowler and Wells released two books written by Lydia for young readers, Familiar Lessons on Physiology and Familiar Lessons on Phrenology. These volumes were reprinted several times, as was her 1848 book Familiar Lessons on Astronomy.
As her influence and reputation increased, Lydia wished to attend medical school, but there were none open to women at that time. There was a beam of light when Elizabeth Blackwell was graduated from Geneva (N. Y.) Medical College in 1849, but the publicity generated by this controversial event caused the college to reject other female students.
Lydia’s cousin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, became her confidante and assisted Lydia in her quest to enter medical school.
A group of upstate New York medical men, characterized as “eclectics,” organized the Central Medical College of New York in Syracuse. This first chartered medical school to offer coeducation opened its doors to one hundred students on November 5, 1849. Lydia was one of the eight women enrolled.
Because the college caused some controversy in Syracuse, it was moved to Rochester, where it was known as the Rochester Eclectic Medical College. Following her graduation, Lydia opened an office on Broadway in New York City and practiced medicine there from 1852 until 1860.
During this period she also devoted much of her time and energy to teaching women at Metropolitan College. Her classes were not held during the regular term, and she was not on staff, but volunteered her services.
In England, Lydia addressed audiences of women, and her lectures on physiology were very well received. Following a visit to Italy, she spent the winter of 1860 - 61 studying medicine in Paris.
Lydia’s father, Gideon Folger, refers to her studies there in a January 1, 1861, letter from Nantucket to his granddaughter, Eunice Macy Folger, who was living in New Orleans.
Returning to England, Lydia took charge of all obstetric cases in London’s Marylebone Road Hospital and later rejoined her husband to lecture throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. Her lectures were published in a volume entitled _The Pet of the Household and how to Save it: Comprised in Twelve Lectures on …_.
A second book, _Woman, Her Destiny and Maternal Relations; Or, Hints to the Single and …_, sold extensively. Lydia’s insights were bold for her day, as the following paragraph from that book illustrates:
"No human being should be so dependent upon another that the termination of the life of one should terminate the sustenance necessary to the life of the other, unless it be in the case of children and parents; for God has given to every thinking human being some gift or power that can be developed for his or her own benefit and for the good of society."
In her lectures to women Lydia praised their roles as mothers of the human race while, at the same time, asking them to think about the other years of their lives, those not set aside for child bearing and rearing. An educated mother, she said, makes the best mother.
She constantly taught that it is the responsibility of individuals to study, practice, and perfect the very best that is within them, mothers especially owing to themselves and their children to be more than merely caretakers.
There was more, she maintained, to child rearing than a clean, physically healthy youngster. The child’s mental and emotional well-being are of utmost importance as well. These tenets are universally accepted today, but were new ideas at the time Lydia promulgated them.
Lydia and Lorenzo’s first daughter, Amelia, was born in 1846, and Loretta, their second, was born a couple of months after her mother received a medical degree from the Central Medical College of New York in 1850 and became the second woman doctor in this country.
That same year Lydia became the first woman medical Professor in this country when she was appointed principal of the female department and demonstrator of anatomy to the female medical students of her alma mater.
Following her teaching she had a private practice in New York. In addition she associated herself with women’s rights proponents as the secretary to several of their conventions. She was also a temperance advocate and was the presiding officer at the Women’s Grand Temperance Demonstration held in Metropolitan Hall.
She travelled and lectured with her husband in this country and Canada. In 1860 they went to England for an extended and very successful lecture tour.
Lydia was raising her daughters, three now, but had time for a trip to Italy, a winter of medical studies in Paris, and even a three-month period in charge of the obstetrical department of a hospital in London.
They came back to the United States and then in 1863 returned to live in England and open an office there on Fleet Street.
Always involved in helpful work, she was visiting poor families for their church when she died at 56 in 1879. Her death was a terrible blow for Lorenzo but his three daughters rallied to his aid and Jessie returned to America with him.
Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, the antebellum era’s pre-eminent spokesmen for phrenology, operated a publishing house, mail-order business, and museum of human and animal skulls. The Fowler brothers’ publishing endeavors extended to their families as well. This book by Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler (Mrs. Lorenzo Fowler) is part of two volumes, directed toward parents and teachers, designed to aid children in using the principles of phrenology “to know themselves” and achieve moral, useful lives.
The Fowler empire was an extended family business. Lorenzo’s wife Lydia not only took an active part in the business, but became the second woman to graduate from an American medical college.
When critics decried his “Grand National Baby Show” as a crass exploitation of the venerated—and private—maternal sphere, Phineas Taylor Barnum responded by presenting a lecture by Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler. Fowler was an author and lecturer, the second woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree, and the first woman Professor in an American medical college.
Her endorsement of the baby show conferred both medical legitimacy and the sanction of a highly educated, respectable woman. This newspaper account describes her baby-show lecture and the enthusiasm with which she was received by an overflowing Lecture Room audience.
Lydia’s biography was written by Frederick Clayton Waite, “Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler: The Second Woman to Receive the Degree of Doctor of Medicine in the United States,” Annals of Medical History 4, 3 (May 1932): 290-297.
Lydia also wrote Marriage: Its History and Ceremonies; with a Phrenological and Physiological … , Nora: the lost and redeemed, Heart melodies, poems, Familiar Lessons on Astronomy: Designed for the Use of Children and Youth … , Woman, Her Destiny and Maternal Relations; Or, Hints to the Single and … , The Pet of the Household and how to Save it: Comprised in Twelve Lectures on … , How to talk - the tongue and the language of nature, a lecture, How to preserve the skin and increase personal beauty, a lecture, How, when, and where to sleep, a lecture, The brain & nervous system: how to secure their healthy action, a lecture, The eye and the ear, and how to preserve them, a lecture, How to secure a healthy spine and vigorous muscles, a lecture,