In light of the extra hours and hard work Utah’s healthcare workers are putting in these days, it’s worth noting how far Utah’s healthcare field has come. Back when early pioneers settled in the area, medical professionals were scarce, especially considering most formal training and education centers were back on the east coast.
Regardless, people—women in particular—took a natural talent and developed it into something useful. While many women contributed to the medical scene, these six women made notable advancements and marks on Utah’s early communities.
Patty Bartlett Sessions
Patty Sessions was a true pioneer of her time—as a young woman, she was called to help another woman in labor. She had no experience of any kind relating to the medical field but helped enough that by the time the doctor arrived, she was credited with saving the laboring woman. According to the Woman’s Exponent—a local newspaper at the time—the real midwife urged Sessions to learn more about midwifery.
During the exodus from the midwest to Utah, there are several accounts (noted in the Exponent) of Sessions taking care of the sick and injured, as well as leaving her own family to care for a woman in labor. She made it to the Utah territory, where she continued her career in midwifery until was 85 years old.
Mary Helen Barker Bates was one of the first medical professionals in Utah’s history. She graduated from Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1873. After finishing her studies, she opened an obstetrics school for women in Salt Lake City to help other women learn skills in basic midwifery and healthcare, according to Church history.
In a copy of the Woman’s Exponent, it is reported that Barker surgically implanted an artificial pupil and restored eyesight to a man who had been blind for eight years.
Ellen Brooke Ferguson is credited with changing much of Utah’s landscape politically and medically throughout her life. According to her obituary in the Salt Lake Telegram, she was one of the founders of what is now LDS Hospital. After extensive medical studies in New York and training with her husband (who was also a doctor), Ferguson became the first resident physician and surgeon for Deseret Hospital in 1882, according to Church history accounts.
According to a Deseret News article, Ferguson was a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was born in England and eventually joined the saints in Utah.
Ellis Reynolds Shipp
Ellis Reynolds was born in 1847 and came to settle the Pleasant Grove area of Utah with her family in 1852. Shipp married at 19 and had ten children with her husband, Milford Shipp. Ellis felt the desire to serve those in her community by going to medical school in Pennsylvania and then returning to Utah to practice medicine.
Several years after her medical school training, Shipp founded The School of Nursing and Obstetrics in 1878. She not only taught women in the Utah area medicine but went on to teach people in Canada, Mexico, Colorado and Nevada—with several kids in tow. Shipp lived to the stunning age of 92, notes the Church.
Today, a clinic and health department in the West Valley area are named after Shipp.
Martha Hughes Cannon
A Welsh immigrant who came to the Salt Lake Valley in 1861, Martha Hughes Cannon was a notable female pioneer for several reasons, says the National Women’s History Museum. She first was a teacher, but later learned to typeset under Hyrum Perry before typesetting for the Deseret News and the Woman’s Exponent.
At the urging of Brigham Young in the October 1873 General Conference, Cannon pursued her medical education at the University of Deseret, now the University of Utah. Cannon worked at typesetting by day while taking night classes to complete her chemistry degree.
She went on to earn four degrees—including one from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. Upon returning to Salt Lake City, Cannon opened a private practice before eventually working as a paid physician at Deseret Hospital in 1882.
Cannon went on to have a notable political career as the first female state senator in the United States (even running against her husband) and wrote bills to support public health.
Belle A. Gemmell
Though not a member of the Church, Belle Gemmell lived in Utah for the majority of her life. Her father was Brigham Young’s doctor, so her family knew the value of medical skills and knowledge. She went to the University of Michigan medical school and graduated in 1884.
When she permanently moved back to Utah, she was appointed Salt Lake County physician. She practiced as a physician on staff at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Gemmell also became a member of the American Medical Association, the American Medical Women’s Association, and the Association of University Women, according to a Brigham Young University scholar.
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