Hunt, Harriot Kezia (1805-1875)
Harriot Kezia Hunt (1805-1875)
Physician and reformer
Early Life. Harriot Kezia Hunt, daughter of Jacob Hunt and Kezia Wentworth Hunt, was born in Boston in 1805. Her parents were deeply involved in Boston’s liberal religious community and reform culture. They educated their two daughters at home. Her father’s death in 1827, when she was twenty-two, made it necessary for Hunt and her sister to find some means of supporting themselves. Together the two conducted a school. When her sister became ill and Boston physicians were unable to diagnose or cure her ailment, Hunt began investigating medical books and devised and carried out a treatment herself.
Medical Training. Hunt’s experience in caring for her sister led her to seek a medical career. At the time, however, there were no colleges or universities for women, much less medical schools. In 1833 Hunt and her sister both entered the home of an English immigrant couple, Dr. and Mrs. Mott, to study medicine privately. Mrs. Mott took charge of most of her husband’s female patients; Hunt shared those responsibilities with her. In 1835, inspired by the growing popularity of nontraditional medical practice by sectarians, Hunt and her sister opened their own practice.
Medical Practice. Hunt continued her medical practice after her sister married in 1840. At a time when most “regular” physicians emphasized harsh, “heroic” therapies, Hunt emphasized prevention. She instructed her patients in physiology so that they would not harm themselves through ignorance and encouraged them to observe good hygienic practices. She treated most of her patients’ illnesses by prescribing a plain, healthy diet, ample exercise, regular bathing, and rest. At a time when standard medical cures could prove debilitating, if not fatal, Hunt experienced a remarkable degree of success and obtained a devoted following. In 1843 she organized a Ladies Physiological Society in Boston to provide a forum in which she could promote her views on healthy living.
Harvard University. Although Hunt did not have a medical education, she, unlike some sectarians, did not disdain such education. In 1847 she applied for permission to attend medical lectures at the Harvard Medical School in an unofficial capacity, but the trustees denied permission. Three years later, after Elizabeth Blackwell had achieved fame by becoming the first woman to receive a medical degree and after the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia had been established, Hunt applied once again to the Harvard Medical School. This time the trustees were more open to the idea of women medical practitioners; they voted five to two to allow her to attend lectures, although not as a fully admitted student. That year, however, proved a controversial one. Two African American men had also been admitted to the medical school. This was too much innovation for one year, apparently. Hunt was caught up in a general burst of outrage by the majority of medical students and was asked to withdraw her application to quiet the controversy so that the two African American men could still enter the school. She complied.
Women’s Rights and Abolition. Hunt followed her parents in the path of reform in other areas besides medicine. In 1850 she attended a women’s rights convention in Massachusetts and quickly adopted that movement’s views advocating the removal of the legal and political disabilities of women. Like many women’s rights advocates, she favored the abolition of slavery. During the 1850s she frequently lectured publicly on behalf of both of those causes. She simultaneously continued her medical practice and joined the public debate over the idea of female physicians. Her pioneering efforts to open the medical profession to women and to acquire a medical education did not go unnoticed. In 1853 the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia awarded her an honorary doctor of medicine degree. She continued both her medical practice and her reform activities until her death on 2 January 1875.
Harriot Kezia Hunt, Glances and Glimpses; or, Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life (Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1856).