“No apology is needed”: The Career of Sarah Furnas Wells

Project Group: Abbey Bisesi and Mavis Corrigan

Student Editor: Joanna Wiley

This mini-edition is drawn from notes and research on the brilliant doctor Sarah Furnas Wells (1834-1912) compiled by Alcines Clair Siddall, M.D. (1897-1980) in the 1970s. Siddall was a physician in Oberlin, Ohio, from 1933 to his retirement in 1972. He gathered nineteenth-century health and sanitation publications, graduation records, biographical snippets, correspondence with archivists, and copies of Wells’ 1885 book, Ten Years’ Travel Around the World. He intended to eventually write a biography of her.

Sarah Eugenie Furnas was born near Troy, Ohio, to Joseph Furnas and Patience Mills Furnas, both devout Quakers. She was the fourth of seven children, and experienced the loss of three young siblings to illness in childhood, which might have inspired her eventual career choice. Dr. Siddall describes her as having been “a precocious child1.” She attended some form of early school in Lebanon, Ohio, arriving at Oberlin after two years at Earlham College2. She married Rufus Gibbon Wells, a phrenologist and President of the Industrial College in New York, in 18733. They never had any children. Later, the couple moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she had her own apothecary, in which she made medicine for illnesses unique to women. Wells died in St. Louis from “burns received at a public bathhouse” (Her husband had died two years prior). Reportedly, she had fifteen cats at the time of her death, which “held the neighborhood in awe.”

After graduating from Oberlin College’s Literary Course in 1865, Wells entered medical school at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first school of its kind in the U. S. Women physicians were rare when she was studying for her medical degree, which she successfully received from the New York Medical College for Women in 1869. Oberlin awarded her an honorary L. B. degree in 1894. In addition, she studied for two years at the American Institute of Sacred Literature at the University of Chicago. Wells remained committed to extending her education, as she continued medical studies in Vienna and toured major cities in Europe, then Turkey, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Australia and Peru. She lectured everywhere she went, addressing harems in Turkey and temperance activists in England. In the Middle East, she served as a women’s physician, and in India was temporarily court physician to the Queen of Bhopal. After twelve years of travel, Wells became Professor of Anatomy and Obstetrics at the New York Medical College for Women. In 1881 she co-founded the Woman’s Medical College of the Pacific Coast with Mary Priscilla Sawtelle (1835-1894). In her spare time, Wells published her own journal with Sawtelle, the Medico-Literary Journal, later the Medico-Literary Compend. According to the October 1886 issue, the Compend was “Dedicated to Medicine, Science, Health, Literature, Temperance and Moral Reform.”

Between 1833 and 1900, twenty-six female Oberlin students obtained advanced degrees in medicine. During Wells’ lifetime, in a rapidly changing social, political, and legal arena, women’s place in the workforce was a hotly debated and deeply divisive topic, particularly when women dared to hold positions previously held exclusively by men. To make matters worse, medical treatment was often of dubious quality because of the low quality of medical education. Women doctors as a group struggled to resist romance and marriage, since women were expected to abandon personal careers after marriage4. To be accepted by men in the workplace, a woman generally had to downplay her gender. Observers considered “manly” a compliment to women doctors5.

Despite cultural and institutional barriers, some married couples practiced together; Wells was lucky to continue personal endeavors while married. Physicians like Emmeline Cleveland, another Oberlin graduate, pioneered “courses in physiology and hygiene to nonmatriculants, mostly mothers and teachers hoping to gain knowledge in health education.6” Moreover, concerned women founded several all-female medical schools across the United States. They cited women’s higher morality, which called for talent in healing and nurturing. Likewise, the call for safe and appropriate working hours for women was connected to their reproductive capacity because motherhood was seen as the all-encompassing purpose of womanhood, a view several woman physicians shared. Women leveraged that position to achieve tenable working conditions in factories, as in the Muller v. Oregon court ruling of 19087. Their unique gifts were seen as instrumental to improving medicine.

Resistance from institutions and physicians’ families was common, of course. Opponents also built their arguments around theories of sex difference. Dr. E. H. Clarke’s Sex in Education, which claimed, among other things, that too much thinking made women sterile, caused an uproar in intellectual and feminist circles8. Revolutionary women scientists such as Sawtelle, Wells, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in Britain, the Blackwell sisters, and Clemence Lozier had begun blazing a trail for women interested in medicine. In her address at the opening exercises of the Women’s Medical College of the Pacific Coast, Wells declared that “woman and her work is one of the great questions of the age. She, as well as man, has a duty to be discharged for the welfare of humanity.9” Wells’ meaning could not be more clear: women’s participation and education in the medical profession was an issue of national welfare and societal transformation. The following collection of documents illuminates the complex political and social dynamics that characterized women’s entrance into traditionally masculinized occupations.

1A. Clair Siddall. Papers, 1918-1988, 30/145, Other Individuals, Box 2, Oberlin College Archives.

2 Earlham College, founded by Quakers in 1847, is located in Richmond, Indiana.

3 Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular in the nineteenth century based on reading a person’s physiognomy and the shape of their skull to determine personality. It was used to justify theories of superior and inferior races.

4 Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987).

5 Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science, 119.

6 Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science, 58.

7 This view was ratified by the U. S. Supreme Court in Muller v. Oregon in 1908.

8 Sex in Education relied on unsourced anecdotes to support Clarke’s argument, including the story of a woman who allegedly almost died from becoming an actress. Clarke implied that proper “development” of the female organs entailed childbearing (Edward H. Clarke, Sex in Education (Boston, MA: James R. Osgood and Company, 1873,) 72-75).

9 Sarah Furnas Wells, Ten Years’ Travel Around the World; or, From Land to Land, Isle to Isle and Sea to Sea (West Milton, OH: Morning Star Publishing Company, 1885), 553.