Dimock, Susan (1847–1875)

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Dimock, Susan (1847–1875)

American medical pioneer, whose extraordinary talent would most likely have made of her a major surgeon and medical practitioner had she not died tragically in a shipwreck at age 28. Born in Washington, North Carolina, on April 24, 1847; died in a shipwreck on May 8, 1875; daughter of Henry Dimock (a lawyer and newspaper editor) and Mary Malvina Owens Dimock.

North Carolina's first female physician, Susan Dimock was born 14 years before the start of the Civil War. Her father Henry Dimock had moved to the south from Maine after graduating from Bowdoin College; his father was a physician. Susan's mother Mary Owens Dimock , a native of Washington, North Carolina, was the daughter of the sheriff of Beaufort County. Henry Dimock gave up schoolteaching to take the post of editor of Washington's local newspaper, The North State Whig. After marrying Mary, Henry acquired the local hotel, The Lafayette, and it was here that the Dimocks' only child Susan was born on April 24, 1847. Susan's childhood was happy, and some of her most formative experiences during those years were the impressions made on her by the family physician, Dr. Solomon Samson Satchwell, who lived across the street from the hotel. Satchwell allowed Susan to read through his medical library and even took her with him when he made calls in the countryside.

A brilliant student at the local academy as well as a cheerful young girl, Susan Dimock was particularly drawn to the Latin language. To perfect her knowledge, she enjoyed translating prescriptions in one of Dr. Satchwell's ancient pharmacopoeias. Dimock's idyllic world came crashing down suddenly in 1863 when Washington was occupied by Union forces. Some of the officers of the occupying army moved into the Lafayette Hotel, and for the unreconstructed Confederates among the local population, the fact that the Dimocks not only seemed to easily accept this fait accompli but were apparently on cordial terms with the soldiers made Susan's parents much disliked in town. Only months after the surrender, Henry Dimock died. Soon after, another catastrophe struck when the hotel burned to the ground.

Daughter and mother, now penniless, faced a harsh future. They managed to get to Sterling, Massachusetts, where Mary's sister lived, and Susan immediately enrolled in a local school and qualified to become a schoolteacher. After only six months in Sterling, Susan, who was not yet 18, secured a teaching job in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. The next phase of Dimock's life evolved from her ability to make deep and lasting friendships. One of her closest friends, Elizabeth "Bessie" Greene , was the daughter of a wealthy Bostonian and social reformer, Colonel William B. Greene. With her and her mother's lives once again relatively stable, Susan's earlier interest in medicine returned stronger than ever. Through her friend Bessie Greene, Susan met Dr. Marie Zakrzewska , a Polish-born Boston physician who was at the time one of the handful of female physicians in the United States. Zakrzewska suggested several medical texts for Dimock to study, and despite some misgivings voiced by her mother, her determination to become a physician became stronger with each passing day. In January 1866, Susan Dimock enrolled at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Dimock's studies were supervised by Dr. Zakrzewska and Dr. Lucy E. Sewall , highly respected female medical pioneers in New England. Susan gained valuable experience treating patients in the wards, in the dispensary and sometimes at their homes. Patients soon came to respect and love the young student who exhibited a "remarkable union of tenderness, firmness and skill." But she burned with ambition to attain the highest level of medical knowledge and applied for admission to Harvard Medical School. When that institution turned down her joint application with the British medical pioneer Sophia Jex-Blake in spring 1867, Dimock refused to be discouraged and successfully applied for admission to Massachusetts General Hospital. Even this excellent institution did not meet Dimock's exacting standards, and she persuaded her mother and Colonel Greene to provide funds to enable her to study in Europe at the only institution that at the time allowed women to study for a medical degree, the University of Zurich.

In Zurich, Dimock was one of a group of seven extraordinary medical pioneers whose courage and tenacity, as well as their obvious intellectual abilities, made possible what the medical historian Thomas Neville Bonner has called "a revolution in women's medical education." Susan Dimock's fellow pioneers in this effort to open the doors of medicine to women included Russia's Maria Bokova and Nadezhda Suslova , England's Elizabeth Morgan and Louisa Atkins , Scotland's Eliza Walker , and Switzerland's Marie Vögtlin . In this talented group, Susan Dimock stood out as a natural leader. She mastered the German language quickly and was able to write her dissertation, on the different forms of puerperal fever, in a clear, easily understood style. Her professors were highly pleased with her progress and after graduating with honors in 1871 she added to her already solid medical knowledge with additional work in hospitals in Vienna and Paris.

At the time of Dimock's return to the United States in 1872, the American Medical Association declared as a body that women would forever be constitutionally incapable of carrying out the grave responsibilities of a doctor of medicine. In the same year, however, the medical society of her native state of North Carolina elected her an honorary member of the profession—"honorary" because at the time she was studying in Paris and could thus not be present for examination. Her credentials were presented by her friend of childhood, Dr. Satchwell, a physician whose words on her behalf carried much weight throughout North Carolina.

In late August 1872, Dimock took up her duties as resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. From the first day on the job, she showed extraordinary energy and imagination in carrying out the tasks assigned to her. Dimock administered the hospital for the next three years without assistance, carrying a crushing work load that included an extensive reorganization of the institution's training school. She advised her nursing staff to treat every patient "as you would wish your own sister to be treated." At the same time, she shared in the patient care in the wards and dispensary and performed virtually all of the surgery at the hospital, rapidly becoming a highly skilled practitioner of this ancient and delicate art. Amazingly, she was also able during these years to establish a considerable and highly regarded private practice.

Proud of her achievements but feeling she needed a long holiday as well as an opportunity to study the latest medical advances in Europe, Dimock requested and received permission for five months' leave of absence for the summer of 1875. Accompanied by her friends Bessie Greene and Caroline Crane , she sailed from New York on April 27, 1875. Their ship, the Schiller, was considered to be one of the best of the great iron-rigged steam vessels of the day, and the three women looked forward to a relaxing ocean voyage followed by months on the Continent. This joyous prospect turned to disaster on the night of May 7–8 when the Schiller entered a foggy stretch of sea off England's Cornwall and was wrecked on a granite reef off the Scilly Isles. Most of those on board, including Susan Dimock and her friends, drowned. Colonel Greene arranged to have his daughter's body as well as that of Caroline Crane and Susan Dimock brought home to Boston, where the three were interred in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Virtually all who commented publicly at the time of Susan Dimock's tragic death noted the incalculable loss to medicine and humanity her passing represented. Several male physicians admitted that their prejudice against women studying medicine ended after they had been able to observe the extraordinary talents of this dedicated young woman. One male doctor lamented that, had she lived, she "would have become a great surgeon and would have been sure to stand … among those at the head of her profession." Her intelligence, modesty, and devotion to the art of healing convinced several of the most stubborn opponents of women serving as doctors that their previous attitudes needed to be drastically changed. To memorialize her life, Susan's family contributed a free bed to the New England Hospital for Women and Children (the hospital still exists in Roxbury as the Dimock Community Health Center). Washington, North Carolina, remains intensely proud of the town's greatest daughter, and her birthplace there is marked by a plaque on East Main Street.


[Cheney, Edna Dow]. Memoir of Susan Dimock, resident physician of New England Hospital for Women and Children. Boston, MA: Press of J. Wilson, 1875 [History of Women Microfilm Collection, Reel 398, No. 2844].

Bonner, Thomas Neville. Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, 1750–1945. NY: Oxford University Press, 1995.

——. "Medical Women Abroad: A New Dimension of Women's Push for Opportunity in Medicine," in Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Vol. 62, 1988, pp. 58–73.

——. "Rendezvous in Zurich: Seven Who Made a Revolution in Women's Medical Education, 1864–1874," in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol. 44, no. 1. January 1989, pp. 7–27.

——. To the Ends of the Earth: Women's Search for Education in Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Sherr, Lynn, and Jurate Kazickas. Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women's Landmarks. NY: Times Books, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia