...in 1848, Dr. Harriot K. Hunt of Boston, one of the nation's first female physicians, made a visit to the Shaker community in Harvard. She found much to her liking. There were male and female healers, and they were highly skilled in the homeopathic medicine she herself practiced. They used herbal remedies, water cures, careful hygiene, and exercise with such success that Shakers were famed for their longevity. Equally unusual, Shaker communities accorded women a status equal to men something that Harriot Hunt had struggled hard to achieve in her own life. Refused admission to Harvard Medical School, Hunt became an advocate for women's rights their right to vote, to enter the professions, and especially their right to attend established medical colleges.
Harriot Hunt was by no means the first Massachusetts woman to concern herself with healing. Colonial women had traditionally acted as nurses, midwives, home-healers, herbalists, and "watchers" sitting beside the ill or dying. But they were unwelcome in the increasingly professionalized all-male world of medicine. Harriot Hunt was one of the first women to break into that world; she opened the door for others to follow, and in time they did.
Harriot Hunt was born in Boston's North End in 1805. She and her younger sister Sarah grew up in a relaxed and affectionate home where they were urged to read broadly and take an interest in public affairs. She was educated at home and then at private schools in Boston. At the age of 22, Harriot started a school of her own in her parents' small home on the Boston waterfront. Here she could satisfy her love of learning while conforming to the era's ideas about woman's "true sphere" of domesticity.
In 1830 her beloved sister fell ill. The doctors who treated Sarah believed that illness was the result of an imbalance in the body's "vital forces." The accepted way to correct those imbalances was to bleed the patient by cupping or applying leeches, raise blisters, or administer poisons such as mercury or turpentine to induce vomiting. For nearly a year Sarah Hunt suffered terribly from these treatments, and her condition did not improve.
After more than 100 visits from physicians, the desperate family turned to alternative healers. Mr. and Mrs. Mott, English homeopaths newly arrived in Boston, diagnosed Sarah as suffering from tuberculosis. The homeopathic approach was to use various water treatments (for example, drinking and bathing in pure, cold water), herbs, exercise, comfortable clothing, and good hygiene. Under the Motts' care, Sarah made a complete recovery.
This experience proved to be the turning point in Harriot Hunt's life. Both she and her sister decided to study homeopathic medicine. After two years of training with the Motts, they opened their own practice. Most of their patients were women and children. Their gentle and often commonsense prescriptions produced such excellent results that, within a decade, they had a thriving Boston practice. Sarah married in 1840 and retired from medicine, but Harriot continued to develop and apply her skills as a homeopathic physician.
Hunt was dismayed by how little women knew about their own health. In 1843 she organized the "Ladies Physiological Society" in Charlestown to educate women about their health. She courted controversy by delivering public lectures designed to teach women about their own bodies.
It was her desire to learn more about the Shaker approach to healing that prompted her to visit the Harvard Shakers in 1848. The Shakers believed God to be both male and female, and women enjoyed full equality. The Shakers advocated strict attention to sanitation and hygiene, healthful diet, cold water and steam cures, sexual abstinence, exercise in the form of physical labor, and the use of herbal remedies. They called in physicians when they felt it necessary. Hunt disagreed with their views on sexual abstinence but otherwise approved of much of what she saw there and returned to the community many times in the next decade.
The Shaker ideal of female equality inspired Hunt to challenge the exclusion of women from professional medicine. In 1850 she applied to be the first woman admitted to Harvard Medical School. A sympathetic dean (Oliver Wendell Holmes) agreed to admit her on the condition that she not sit in the regular anatomy class. But the students objected to the admission of Hunt and to Holmes's similar offer to three black students. Faced with a boycott and threatened withdrawals from the school, the faculty capitulated and directed Holmes to withdraw the offers. Three years later, the Female Medical College of Philadelphia granted Harriot Hunt an honorary M.D.; she could legitimately call herself a doctor. It would be nearly a century before Harvard Medical School would admit another woman.
Her exclusion from Harvard Medical School could have embittered Hunt, but instead it emboldened her. She became an outspoken advocate of woman's rights. She was among the group of women who organized the first National Women's Rights Convention held in Worcester in the autumn of 1850. There she gave a major address on the need for women's medical education. In 1852 Hunt became the first woman to state publicly that her obligation to pay property taxes was "taxation without representation"; she continued her tax protest for the rest of her life.
Harriot Hunt never married; in 1871 three years before her death at the age of 69 she hosted a celebration of her commitment to her profession. Three generations of friends and patients witnessed a ceremony in which a ring was placed upon the doctor's finger and addresses given to recognize and "sanctify" the "silver anniversary" of her entry into medicine. Hunt told the guests, "Oh, I have been so happy in my work, every moment occupied, how I long to whisper it in the ear of every listless women, 'do something, if you would be happy.'"
Harriot Hunt's grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery is adorned by a statue of the goddess of health, sculpted by Edmonia Lewis.
The Harvard Shaker Book of Days: Echoes from Shaker Diaries, Notebooks, and Journals 1791-1918, ed. by Janet Streeter Fowke and James McMurtry Longo (Hill Country Press, 1995).
Notable American Women, Vol. II.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Vol. 7.
"Women's Leadership in Medicine and Psychiatry," by Carol C. Nadelson, in News for Women in Psychiatry, Summer 2003, Vol. 21, No. 3.