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Harriot Kezia Hunt — Making A Difference

Adapted from multiple sources including a 2005 article, " Mrs. Mott, 'The Celebrated Female Physician , '" in Historic New England online magazine.

Harriot Kezia Hunt, 1805-1875, was barred from medical study at Harvard College because male students objected to her presence. She learned medicine from Elizabeth Mott, who practiced homeopathic medicine in Boston . She applied unsuccessfully to Harvard Medical School — the first woman to try — yet became the first woman in the U.S. to practice medicine professionally. She was a Universalist.

Harriot's younger sister, Sarah, was very sick. Harriot was beginning to feel desperate because nothing the doctors did was helping. In fact, the treatments seemed to make Sarah worse instead of better.

You see, this was more than a hundred years ago — before any of your great-grandparents were even born. No one knew about germs the way we do today, or why people got sick. Most doctors believed you had to force sickness out of a person. They would give sick people medicines made with turpentine and mercury. When the medicines made people vomit or drool, the doctors thought the medicines were working and making the sickness come out. Actually, these were signs the medicines were poison.

Sometimes doctors would cut a patient on purpose. They thought if blood came out of a sick person, it would bring the sickness out with it. Doctors thought this helped patients, but actually it made their bodies weaker and less able to fight their illness.

For one year, Harriot's sister Sarah had suffered through these sorts of treatments. It was time to try something new. Sarah went to see a new kind of doctor: Dr. Mott. She didn't care that everybody thought he was a quack, a fake doctor. He treated Sarah in an entirely new way. He explained that she should get plenty of rest, eat healthy food, and exercise every day. Finally, Sarah began to improve and after some time was cured.

Harriot was very relieved that her sister was better. But she saw other people suffering from the same sorts of treatments that Sarah had experienced. She knew someone had to do something to change things. She decided to take action and become a doctor. She tried to go to medical school, but the students were all men. They protested that they would not study with a woman. So, instead, Harriot studied medicine with Dr. Mott's wife, Elizabeth. Her sister Sarah learned with the Motts, too. Soon, Harriot was treating patients. She taught women how to stay healthy by the same ways that had helped Sarah get better: proper exercise, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep. Harriot became the first woman to practice medicine in the United States .

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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