Steward, Susan McKinney

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Susan McKinney Steward

Just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the United States, Susan McKinney Steward (1847-1918) became the first African-American woman physician in New York and only the third in the country. She practiced homeopathic medicine in Brooklyn most of her life, before moving several times with her second husband. Steward was active in medical societies, and as an abolitionist and suffragist.

Susan McKinney Steward was born Susan Marie Smith in Brooklyn 1847; the exact date is unknown. She was the seventh of ten children born to Sylvanus and Anne S. Smith. Her father was a successful pig farmer. Both of Steward's parents were multi-racial. Her mother was the daughter of a Shinnecock Indian woman and a French colonel. Her father's ancestors included a Montauk Indian and an African who escaped from a slave ship.

A number of events may have motivated Steward to choose medicine as a career. Two of Steward's brothers died during the Civil War. In 1866, Steward witnessed the high death rate from a cholera epidemic that affected Brooklyn. More than 1,200 people died during the epidemic. At one point in her youth, Steward cared for a sick niece. Any of these events may have helped her decide to pursue a career as a physician.

Medicine was an unusual career choice for any woman in the mid-nineteenth century. It was even more unusual for an African-American woman. Male students believed that medical education "unsexed" women. They frequently taunted their female peers. Because women weren't welcome in medical schools, all-female institutions opened up. Steward attended the New York Medical College for Women beginning in 1867. The school was located in Manhattan, where Steward lived with one of her sisters.

Studied Homeopathic Medicine

The New York Medical College for Women was a homeopathic medical school founded by Dr. Clemence Sophia Lozier in 1863. Lozier was a wealthy physician who was sympathetic to African-Americans and hosted antislavery meetings in her home. Lozier became Steward's mentor and the two remained close friends until Lozier's death in 1888.

Many women's medical schools specialized in homeopathic medicine. The homeopathic specialty was based on the work of Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who was dissatisfied with the medical theories of his day. He conducted experiments and developed treatments that used weak doses of medicine to cure illnesses and conditions. Some traditional doctors dismissed homeopathic medicine as quackery.

Homeopathic students at the New York Medical College for Women were required to study anatomy, physiology, chemistry, materia medica, surgery, obstetrics and medical jurisprudence. Clinical lectures took place at the New York Homeopathic Dispensary and the New York Ophthalmic Hospital. In Afro-Americans in New York Life & History, William Seraile explained that when a lack of funds forced the college to send students to Bellevue Hospital for clinic work, the women were greeted by "hisses indecent language, paper balls and other missils," the Daily Eagle reported. The paper condemned the students and their faculty for their unruly behavior.

Although her prosperous father could have afforded to pay for her medical school education, Steward paid her own tuition for the three years she attended the New York Medical College for Women. She earned the money teaching music in a colored school in Washington D.C. for two years. Steward graduated from medical school as valedictorian in 1870.

When Steward graduated, she became the first African-American female physician in New York and only the third in the country. Surprisingly, the event did not attract very much attention in most of the city's newspapers. Seraile reported that The Courier described her attire at the graduation ceremony as modest and "noted the fact as a good sign of the improvement of the African race." The article went on to say that "Miss Steward belongs to the colored aristocracy in Brooklyn and is a member of the Episcopal church."

Steward had difficulty finding steady work immediately after her graduation, but eventually developed a thriving practice and became known for her ability to treat malnourished children. She maintained offices in Brooklyn and Manhattan and treated a variety of patients regardless of income or ethnicity.

In 1871, Steward married William G. McKinney, an Episcopal minister from South Carolina. The couple lived in Steward's parents' home until 1874, when they moved to a predominantly white area of Brooklyn. McKinney was 17 years older than his wife. The couple had two children: Anna, who became a schoolteacher, and William Sylvanus, who, like his father, became an Episcopal priest. The family lived comfortably in Brooklyn.

In 1890, William McKinney suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was unable to maintain his normal work schedule. Steward supported the family, as well as six of her relatives who lived in the McKinney home. William McKinney died on November 24, 1895 when Steward was 48.

Active in Medical Societies

Steward was active in many medical societies including Kings County Homeopathic Medical Society and the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. During the 1880s, she presented two important papers to the New York group. The first was about a pregnant woman who was incorrectly treated. The second paper was about childhood diseases. She served as a delegate to the New Jersey State Homeopathic Society's semi-annual meeting in 1889. She later became a member of the New Jersey society. She was a founding member of the Alumni Association of the New York Medical College for Women and taught at the school in 1882-1883.

Steward was one of the founders of the Brooklyn Woman's Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary, which was later named Memorial Hospital for Women and Children. She served as a surgeon on the hospital's staff. She was also a physician at the Brooklyn Home for the Aged. She was the only woman in a post-graduate class at Long Island Medical College in 1887-1888.

Steward was also an activist for education, missionary work, women's suffrage and temperance. She was president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union No. 6. She was also active in the Brooklyn Literary Union. She organized many musical programs for the union and sold tickets to many musical events.

Steward had a lifelong love of music. As a child, she took organ lessons from famed organists John Zundel and Henry Eyre Brown. For many years, she served as the organist and choir director for the Siloam Presbyterian and Bridge Street A.M.E. churches. She also contributed to many of the Brooklyn Literary Union's musical programs, often accompanied by her children, who shared her talent.

Two years after her husband William died in November 1894, Steward's 81-year-old mother died of heart disease, senility and hemophilia on the day Steward's daughter, Annie was to be married. The wedding went on since the couple was planning on traveling immediately to Haiti.

Three weeks after her mother's death, Steward married Rev. Theophilus Gould Steward, chaplain of the 25th United States Colored Infantry. Rev. Steward had been Susan Steward's pastor in 1874-1877. He had children, although the exact number is unknown.

Moved From Brooklyn

After having spent her entire life in Brooklyn, Steward and her new family moved several times as Rev. Steward was stationed in various cities. Steward practiced medicine in all the cities in which she lived. Shortly after they were married, the family moved to Montana, where Rev. Steward was stationed at Fort Missoula. From 1898 to 1902, Rev. Steward was in Cuba and the Philippines. Susan Steward became a college physician of Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1902, Rev. Steward was stationed at Fort Niobrara, Nebraska and his wife joined him there. She was also involved in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. In 1906, the Stewards moved to Fort McIntosh, near Laredo, Texas.

In addition to their frequent moves, the couple traveled extensively. They visited much of the United States, Haiti, Mexico and Europe. In 1897, Steward traveled to Haiti to deliver her first grandson, Louis Holly. In 1911, the Stewards attended a Universal Race Congress in London. The meeting brought together Africans, Asians, Americans and Europeans seeking to improve relationships and cooperation between the East and West. Well-known American author W.E.B. Dubois attended. Steward presented a paper at the conference, titled "Colored American Women." The paper dealt with achievements of famous African-American women including Phyllis Wheatley, Ida Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell.

In 1914, Steward presented a paper on "Women in Medicine" before the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in Wilberforce, Ohio. Her paper examined the history of women in medicine from Biblical times to 1914. Steward concluded that there was no need for separate medical schools for women, but that they should have equal opportunity for internships.

Steward died suddenly on March 7, 1918 at Wilberforce University. She was 70 or 71 years old. Her body was returned to Brooklyn, where she was buried. She was eulogized by Hallie Q. Brown, a close friend and associate at Wilberforce; Dr. William S. Scarborough, president of Wilberforce University; Dr. W.E.B. DuBois; and Dr. Helen S. Lassen, a white classmate.

Steward's name is not widely known, but during the 1970s and 1980s, efforts were made to honor her. In 1974, her grandson William S. McKinney succeeded in getting the New York Board of Education to name a Brooklyn junior high school the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School. During the 1980s, African-American women doctors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut named their medical society after Steward.

Brown's eulogy included this description of Steward: "She was great in the estimation of those who knew her capacity, her ability, her real worth. She was not a spectacular women. She was modest. A woman absolutely self-reliant, honest to herself and to her friends. She acted upon her own judgment and when she had made up her mind that a thing was right and ought to be done, SHE DID IT. She was one of those generous natures that love peace, order, and harmony. But she could strike, and strike hard, in what she believed to be a righteous cause. With her it was justice on the one side, and injustice on the other."


Brown, Hallie Q., Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, Oxford University Press, New York, 1988.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.


Afro-Americans in N.Y. Life & History, July 1985.

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Steward, Susan McKinney

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