Sarah Anne Grant MD: 19th Century Pioneer in Medicine and Ministry

According to family stories*, Sarah Anne Grant approached her husband John in the late 1860s or early 1870s with some surprising news: she felt called by God to become a doctor. Sarah already had two children at home, but John was supportive so she left him home to tend their farm and their children while she studied medicine. At this time in American history, a female doctor was a rarity. Women faced numerous professional hurdles to become doctors. Many medical schools wouldn’t accept them as students, leading to the founding of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1850 so women could receive training and hands-on experience with patients. State medical societies didn’t accept them and many patients were scared to go to them. The local papers were filled with derisive jokes and stories both fictional and credible scorning female physicians. One example is a July 17, 1877, story called “Cousin Nell: A Love Story” it appeared in numerous papers across the Midwest. In it Nell, a sweet young woman whose father is a physician, is put in charge of caring for his patients. The young woman assures her suitor she has no intention of being a woman doctor as she has “no desire to step out of a woman’s true sphere.” She just hopes to become a good nurse. “Cousin Nell” reflects the prevailing attitude of the time period which viewed any woman in a professional role outside the home as violating her true calling. Female evangelists faced similar social rejection and the fact that Sarah Anne went on to not only become a doctor but a Free Methodist evangelist first in Indiana, then Western Iowa and Oklahoma and finally California is impressive. (For those who might not connect her name Sarah Anne is the same woman called Anna Grant in the 1894 General Conference minutes. She represented Northern Indiana and voted in favor of women’s ordination.)

Sarah’s family stories note that upon her return from medical training she faced ridicule as a female doctor, only women and children wanted to see her for medical attention. However, after helping a town in Indiana (most likely north west Indiana as that is where she served as an evangelist) deal with some sort of contagion that was killing children she was able to gain more acceptance as a physician. Yet, she still faced social backlash and had to regularly use only her initials S.A. Grant when writing prescriptions or the pharmacists wouldn’t fill them for her patients. As a result, she grew numerous medicinal herbs to try to prevent dealing with the pharmacist as much as possible.

I would desperately love to find out where she did her medical training but it really is looking for a needle in a haystack. In my research on institutions that granted medical degrees to women there appear to be a few in the Midwest that she possibly went to. Case Western Reserve Medical School was among the earliest. In 1852 the college graduated Nancy Talbot Clark, only the second female to earn a medical degree in the United States (after Elizabeth Blackwell at Geneva Medical College in 1849. The University of Iowa was also another early adopter of coeducational curriculum, admitting women into their medical college in 1855. Indiana also had several medical schools Sarah Anne possible went to including the Fort Wayne Medical College or the Indiana College of Medicine and Midwifery. It’s difficult to find graduation records from that time period, particularly the Indiana colleges as many folded at the turn of the 20th century. Since I’m not sure of the exact year she possibly went to medical school it makes the search even more difficult I estimate the 1870s or 1880s but that’s a wide time span to try to dig up records.

It’s also possible Sarah Anne did not attend medical school and instead trained under a sympathetic male doctor which was also a common practice. Quaker physicians were particularly sympathetic to women desiring to enter medicine but struggling to gain adequate training (Abram, 1985)

  • the descendants of Sarah and John preserved several stories about her life and have been gracious enough to share them with me.

Abram, R. (1985). Send us a lady physician: Women doctors in America 1835-1920. New York: W.W. Norton.

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