A year after the first women’s rights convention was implemented in 1848, Elizabeth Blackwell made history by becoming the first woman in the United States to earn a medical degree.
Blackwell’s path to becoming doctors has not been easy for other women. Many universities didn’t even allow women to attend, and those that often restricted the lectures that women could take. Despite the difficulties, 2,400 women were practicing medicine by 1880, according to files in the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.
Alida Avery moved to Denver in 1874 to open her medical practice and become the first woman to be a licensed doctor in Colorado. As Colorado grew, so did the need for doctors, and advertisements for women doctors can be seen in several old newspapers.
Several of these medical pioneers lived in Fremont County. According to records from the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center, Fremont County had at least three female doctors from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries.
Sarah Goff was born on July 11, 1846 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and began practicing medicine in Kansas at the age of 20, according to her obituary in the Cañon Clipper. In 1892 she moved to Colorado for health reasons and settled in Cañon City in 1896. While information about her time here is limited to a few newspaper ads and her obituary, records suggest that she served the community as a medical doctor specializing in women and children’s health.
An advertisement in the Florence Daily Herald dated January 1897 stated that Goff’s office was above Snyder’s dry goods store, with hours of operation from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Her obituary goes on to say that she was very popular and very successful in her short career in Cañon City. She died of pleural pneumonia on June 24, 1900 at her home at 823 Harrison Street, leaving behind three children. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Goff wasn’t the only medical doctor to begin serving Fremont County in 1897. Dr. Mary Edington Phelps also appeared in historical newspaper articles and advertisements at the time.
Dr. Phelps was born in Brooklyn, orphaned at an early age, and moved to Newburgh when she was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Phelps at the age of 9. Her parents were deeply involved in the Presbyterian Church and taught their children the values of religion and philanthropy.
Dr. Phelps, a Northwestern Medical graduate, established the infirmary for old Presbyterian ministers and their wives in Newburgh Thornton in honor of her parents. While Dr. Phelps’ time in Cañon City was deeply invested in the community and served on many boards. The first mention of Dr. Phelps can be found in an article in the Florence Daily Herald dated November 13, 1897, in which she was appointed secretary to the Board of County Visitors in Public Buildings.
An article a few weeks later described the purpose of the board as “the purpose of this board and the duty of its members is to visit the prisons and poorhouses of the county and to maintain oversight of such institutions.”
In 1900, Dr. Phelps in her practice with Dr. RE Naylo a. An ad was posted on the Cañon City Record on September 27th stating that Dr. Phelps received patients on Tuesday and Friday afternoons. Her office was in the post office. During her career, Dr. Phelps held a leadership role in the community who attended several clubs including the Republicans Club, the Progress Club, and the Fremont County Physician’s Post Graduate Club, where she lectured frequently.
According to a 1902 article, Dr. Phelps also talks about personal cleanliness for students. Dr. Phelps was considered a respected physician in the community and was vice president of the Colorado State Medical Society in 1906. She served as the County Health Officer for several years and passed the town through quarantine policy with a severe 1907 outbreak of scarlet fever.
Dr. Phelps was known for her love of travel and reports filled the social section of the newspaper during the years of her travels to Yellowstone, the 1904 World’s Fair, Portland, Alaska, Chicago, Toronto, Montreal, the Thousand Islands, Boston, New York, Washington. DC and the Jamestown Exposition area.
In 1910, Dr. Phelps to close her practice to pursue her love of travel. Prior to their departure, there was a grand surprise banquet for the beloved doctor at 412 Greenwood, hosted by the Progress Club. Every detail, down to the acrostic in the rhyming invitation, was made by the ladies in honor of Dr. Phelps well thought out.
The invitation read:
“Listen now and don’t look somber.
Remember, Progress has you coming.
Do your best and come up with some rhyme.
This time in honor of Dr. Phelps
Eat at seven because that’s the plan:
Let’s be happy as long as we can.
Please be ready to do your part.
So we will banish all worry. “
At the end of the four-course menu, the group presented the rhymes they had written for Dr. Phelps had prepared. The City of Cañon article states: “The rhymes were messages of love and appreciation. with a mixture of wit and fun. These little poems were all put together in a volume to cheer the doctor on her travels. The article goes on to say that Ms. Phelps made a world tour from San Francisco to Honolulu before heading to the Far East.
The next mention of Dr. Phelps in the local newspapers can be found again on the social pages reporting that locals can visit her in London.
Dr. Mary Phelps died in Evansville on September 26, 1924, at the age of 72.
Records in the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center indicate that Dr. Laura E. Armstrong also served the ward in 1898. Their offices were in the Blunt Block in Florence. A graduate of the Lady Stanley Institute in Ottawa, she studied medicine at Trinity Medical College and graduated in 1892 according to her obituary in the Ottawa Journal.
The first mention of Dr. Armstrong, who arrives in Fremont County, is on the Florence Daily Herald on December 3, 1897, stating that she is from Toronto, Canada and is staying at the Fremont Hotel. She was listed on the Florence Daily Herald’s list of new neighbors, citing all the new additions to the city in 1897 as well as on the new business page. Advertisements for her practice as a specialist in diseases of women and children ran through January and February 1898. Her obituary goes on to say that she moved to Southern California in December 1899 for health reasons. She died on March 28, 1901, at the age of 28, at her brother William’s home in Sierra Madre, California.
Despite advances in women’s rights movements over the years, the medical field continues to be dominated by men. There was a surge in the number of women doctors in the 1960s as the women’s health movement advanced, according to some reports. A 2019 study by the Kaiser Family Association found that male doctors are 64% to 36% more than female doctors.