Three Women Physicians in Danbury, CT (1871-1935)

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By 1894, just 45 years after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States, Danbury was home to not one...

but at least seven women physicians/dentists. Including Mrs. Kotholine (Kate) M. Dean, Rosina Hirsch, Elizabeth Sasse (mid-wife), and Louisa Spagnuola. This exhibit will focus on 3 ...

Sophia Penfield,

Adelaide Holton,

and Annie Bailey (Keeler). [image from an 1894 Hartford, CT city directory, Ancestry.com]

These three women were born in the area around Danbury and had made it the place where they would practice medicine. While other cities and towns in Connecticut had female doctors, it was an anomaly that so many were practicing in Danbury at the same time.

The oldest of the 3 was Adelaide Holton (nee Taylor) ...

born in 1833 in Danbury (seen here on the 1850 Census from Ancestry.com). The Taylors lived in the Germantown/Great Plain area.

Sophia Penfield...

born in New Fairfield in 1844 (This is her 1905 passport application from Ancestry.com. She was 5' 5" and had red hair.)

Annie Bailey was born in New York City in 1855 - though, her parents were from Ridgefield, CT and Southeast, NY. She is frequently referred to as Annie Bailey, but she preferred her mother's maiden name, Keeler, and is pictured here presumably around 1875 (this colorized image is from findagrave.com). She is the only one of the three of whom we have been able to find a portrait.

These three physicians had interesting stories even before they converged in Danbury in the 1880s. Starting with the oldest of the 3 and moving chronologically... In 1855, Adelaide Holton married John Holton who had attended Knox College in Galesburg, IL (seen here in an image from the college's Web site) and obtained his medical degree at Medical College, Keokuk, Iowa. When the Civil War began, he joined the 4th Connecticut Volunteers. At some point in his service, he contracted tuberculous.

His illness led to his transfer to Albuquerque, NM where he served as a hospital steward and assistant surgeon. There was a Union military presence in New Mexico through the Civil War. This is a period map of the area from the Library of Congress collections.

He was joined in New Mexico by Adelaide. In 1864, they had a daughter, Linda Holton (they also had a daughter born in 1860 and a son born in 1867).

After the war, in 1866, John and Adelaide returned to the east and John began studying medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia PA (seen here is a graduation booklet from 1866 on sale on Etsy), but the TB returned. For his health, John went to Argenta, Arkansas where he lived until his death a short time later. Adelaide may not have joined him in Arkansas.

Seen here is a page from the genealogy "Farwell Ancestral Memorial: Henry Farwell, of Concord and Chelmsford ...", 1879, which includes a short obituary of John Holton (from Google Books).

Around the time of her husband's death, Adelaide Holton enrolled in medical school. Seen here is Holton listed in the New York Medical College for Women's 1873 catalog (Ancestry.com).

At around the same time she is listed in the 1870 Census...

Adelaide is listed with the vocation of "keeping house" in Danbury.

This is the New York Medical College for Women's main building in a period engraving ... Holton graduated in 1875.

Adelaide Holton also studied at New York's Eclectic Medical College - seen here from an engraving in the collections of the National Library of Medicine. (http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101435207)

Meanwhile in 1869, at the age of 25, New Fairfield's Sophia Penfield enrolled in the Homeopathic Medical College for Women in New York and worked at a dispensary. (Pictured here is the Homeopathic Medical College- it is unclear whether the women's college was in a different location. Image is part of the collections of the NY Historical Society - The New York Homeopathic Medical College and Hospital, E. 63rd Street, New York City, ca. 1908-1919)

To the South of Danbury in Ridgefield, CT, Emily and Halcyon Bailey, Annie Keeler's parents, divorced in 1873.

This might be around the same time Halcyon Bailey was running a joke political campaign for Ridgefield "Hayward".

In 1910, Annie Keeler dropped her father's surname and said "Father was a man addicted to dissipation, shocking immorality and profanity. He was a disgrace to the family."

The year after her parents' divorce, Annie Keeler was enrolled in the New Britain Normal School (now Central CT State University) In 1876, she graduated.

This is an image of the main building from a period diploma.

Meanwhile, Penfield was practicing in Saugerties, NY, and shortly thereafter, came to Danbury, CT in 1871. Here's Penfield's entry in Danbury's first published directory (1871-1872).

In 1877, Holton became a clerk for the Federal Treasury.

The Federal Register (from Ancestry.com) shown here, states that she was appointed in Arkansas (she may have been in Arkansas for reasons related to her late husband's estate) and stationed in DC. In 1880, Holton began practicing in Danbury.

In 1881, the John Holton estate after nearly a decade was settled...

through Arkansas courts.

In 1885 at age 30, Annie Keeler graduated from the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary.**

She spent 'nearly one year' at the New York Infirmary (Hospital for Women and Children), and then came to Danbury in 1886.

In 1894, all three women were listed in Bailey's History of Danbury as members of the Danbury Medical Society. Each received a brief bio. In 1894 Sophia Penfield opened a sanitarium 'for the treatment of chronic diseases by mechanical massage' (source: Bailey's History of Danbury, page 379, Google Books).

Danbury around 1890 (WCSU Archives).

Dr. Adelaide Taylor Holton, at the age of 77, died in 1910 in Danbury.

She is buried in Wooster Cemetery alongside her husband whose body had been transferred to Danbury from Arkansas.

Drs. Penfield and Keeler continued to practice medicine in Danbury and in 1920, both voted in the first election after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Penfield voted in Ward 2 of Danbury.

Keeler Voted in Ward 1 of Danbury

Keeler's home and office were on Chapel Place...

which is still a medical office - Dr. Suzanne Knox, DDS. The house is seen here in a period postcard behind the ruins of a fire on Main Street. 'Dr. Bailey' is written on sign attached to the railing of the porch.

In November of 1901, Keeler predicted the end of the world by 26 December, 1901.

When this did not come to pass, she was gently mocked.

In the early 1900s, the American Medical Association (AMA) began keeping records on American physicians. This card-based system gives us another way to research early American physicians. Sometimes, these cards are brief. This is the card for Adelaide Holton.

Other times, they lay out a brief biographical sketch. On this card, we learn where Annie Keeler was educated, where she lived, and when she was born.

On Annie Keeler's second card, she's listed as having died in an automobile accident.

This Danbury News article goes into more detail,...

and tells how Keeler was struck and killed at a Main Street crossing near Chapel Place in 1927.

Sophia Penfield would live until 1935...

and she practiced in Danbury from 1871 until the late 1920s.

On the occasion of her 90th birthday in 1934, the Danbury News interviewed Dr. Penfield regarding her long service to the community.

She would pass away the next year.

She is buried in Wooster Cemetery.

After Penfield's death, it would be many years before there would be 7 female physicians practicing concurrently in Danbury. There are many possible factors that could have contributed to the number in Danbury during this period. One significant factor was likely the existence of educational opportunities in close proximity to Danbury that accepted women students. Another factor was the Civil War and the resulting need for women in the medical profession. Finally, the presence of other women physicians may have made it easier for women to consider practicing medicine in Danbury.

According to U.S. Census data, there was an increase in the number of women physicians in the 1880s and 1890s. In fact, as a percentage, the number of female physicians in CT in 1890 was double what they were in in 1930. The ups and downs in numbers we see in Danbury is borne out in the statewide and national data. *** Click here to view a map showing where female physicians were in practice around Connecticut in 1894.

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