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Harriot and Sarah Hunt

#womenshistoryProfilesMarch 14, 2022

Harriot and Sarah Hunt opened the door to the medical profession for women in America. Defying the norms of their time, they  established a medical practice in Boston in an era when women were barred not only from the profession, but from much of public life. The Hunt sisters’ medical practice helped transform accepted standards of treatment and care, especially for female patients, by practicing a holistic approach that encompassed education, diet, hygiene, and mental health.

Born into a liberal household with parents who encouraged intellectual and spiritual inquiry, the Hunt sisters supported themselves and their mother by establishing a school in the family home following the sudden death of their father in 1827.

But in the early 1930s, Sarah endured a sustained period of frail health, and Harriot became increasingly disillusioned with the state of medical practice after a succession of seemingly inept doctors administered a range of ineffectual and often poisonous treatments, from ointments containing mercury to leeches. 

“I marveled—all this agony—all these remedies—and no benefit,” Harriot later wrote in her 1856 memoir, Glances and Glimpses.

Finally the Hunts sought help from Dr. Richard and Elizabeth Mott, an English couple widely considered quacks by the medical establishment who used splashy advertisements to promote their natural remedies and herbal treatments. Sarah’s health improved under the Motts’ care, and in 1833 the sisters went to work for the couple as apprentices.  

Two years later, in the face of contempt and ridicule, the Hunt sisters established their own medical practice. Believing that medicine, as currently practiced, “lacked a soul,” the Hunts offered a holistic approach centered on hygiene, diet, exercise, natural remedies, and the consideration of “heart histories,” an accounting of all aspects of a patient’s life, including mental health, in what was essentially a form of psychotherapy. The sisters focused on treating women, who were more comfortable discussing their health with other women than with male doctors, and encouraged their patients to act as collaborative partners in creating their treatment plans. 

Though Sarah continued to treat patients informally for much of the rest of her life, she stepped back from the sisters’ medical practice in 1840 when she married and started a family with Boston newspaper publisher Edmund Wright. The couple’s home became a gathering spot for like-minded reformers — suffragettes, abolitionists, intellectuals, and women who followed in the Hunt sisters’ footsteps in establishing careers as physicians. 

Harriot continued with the medical practice and became a leading figure in the women’s movement. Following the first Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Harriot helped plan and host the first National Women’s Rights Convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850. 

While Hunt began to lecture widely on women’s rights, she was something of a rarity among suffragettes — not merely a public speaker, but a single, independent woman with a successful career in a field monopolized by men, and flourishing despite the slings and arrows hurled against her.

Harriot’s reputation grew again when newspapers nationwide printed her annual letters of protest to the Boston Tax Assessor’s Office. Each year Hunt accompanied her payment with letters in which she echoed the rhetoric of the American Revolution by accusing the government of “taxation without representation” for extracting income tax from women while denying them the right to vote. 

She further pushed the boundaries in 1847 by applying to Harvard’s medical school. A few years later, after Elizabeth Blackwell won admission to Geneva College in New York, Hunt again applied to Harvard, hoping that Blackwell’s precedent would change minds at the university. She concluded her application with the question:

“Shall woman be permitted all the Medical advantages she desires? Shall mind, or sex, be recognized in admission to medical lectures? An answer will be awaited with deep interest.”

This time Hunt’s application was approved, but her admission was scuttled when the school’s white male student body protested not only Hunt’s admission, but the admission of three Black men who intended to practice medicine in Africa. The Harvard students declared that “no woman of true delicacy” would study physiology,  and “we object to having the company of any female forced upon us, who is disposed to unsex herself, and to sacrifice her modesty by appearing with men in the lecture room.”

The backlash against Hunt’s application spurred Harvard Medical School to adopt a formal policy against women attending lectures. Nearly a century would pass before the school finally opened its doors to women. 

Hunt’s influence stems not only from her medical practice and her role in the national women’s movement, but from organizations she helped establish with the goal of furthering women’ rights and education, including the New England Women’s Club and the Ladies Physiological Institute, a gathering place for women to study anatomy and physiology which is credited with popularizing the notion of women in medicine. 

By the time Harriot Hunt died in 1875, eight years after the passing of her sister Sarah, nearly 2,000 women were practicing medicine in the United States.

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