Hunt, Harriot Kezia (1805–1875)

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Hunt, Harriot Kezia (1805–1875)

Alternative healer, sometimes called the first woman doctor in the U.S., who sought to expand the legitimacy of women in male-dominated professions and traced mental and physical illness in women to limitations imposed on their lives. Born Harriot Kezia Hunt on November 9, 1805, in Boston, Massachusetts; died in Boston of Bright's disease on January 2, 1875; daughter of Joab Hunt (a ship's joiner) and Kezia (Wentworth) Hunt; attended private schools and studied alternative medicine for two years; never married; no children.

Opened a school in her home (1827); began two-year study of alternative medicine (1833); opened practice of alternative medicine (1835); organized the Ladies Physiological Society in Charlestown, Massachusetts (1843); turned to the Swedenborgian religion (1843); applied to Harvard Medical School and denied entry (1847); attended the first National Women's Rights Conference (1850); reapplied to Harvard and admitted (1850); was the first woman to make public protest in Massachusetts against "taxationwithout representation" (1852); received honorary M.D. from the Female Medical College of Philadelphia (1853); hosted the founding meeting of the New England Women's Club (1868). Publications: Glances and Glimpses or Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life (1856).

On November 9, 1871, Dr. Mary Stafford Blake , a young admirer of Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, arrived in Boston to pay tribute to the physician, humanist, and reformer for "all she had done for women," on the occasion of Dr. Hunt's 66th birthday. The two sat by a small open fire that revealed Hunt's perfect teeth and reflected on her silvery grey hair, wrote Blake, which "looked silken and was swept back and fastened in a French twist." Seated in a large armchair, Hunt proudly remarked, "All you see left of me is natural; I have never had time to put on modern gear."

That week was sacred to her for its family memories, Hunt told Blake, including the birthday anniversaries of both her mother and father, and their wedding anniversary. In a family that had always been everything to her, all that now remained were the sons of her beloved sister, Sarah Augusta Hunt . For years, Hunt's perseverance had helped to prepare the way for women to enter the medical profession in male centers of learning, and had inspired women toward self-determination in their physical and mental lives. Step by step, she had fought a courageous battle against the cultural marginalization of women within marriage and community, and their exclusion from male-dominated institutions, actions that still stand as a model for women who wish to control their own lives.

Born in Boston in 1805, Harriot Kezia Hunt was the first of two daughters born to Joab and Kezia Wentworth Hunt after 14 years of marriage. The parents were of old New England stock. Kezia Hunt was an opinionated woman, described by her daughter as having a "strong love for politics—even more than my father," and a capacity for helping others that was extended to a large circle of relatives. Harriot's father made his living as a ship's joiner, or carpenter, and later as a shipping industry investor, and was a "bright, glad, witty man, without a shade of vulgarity." His adventurous sea stories, culled from the sea captains that were his companions, provided Hunt with her first childhood visions of the world outside of Boston.

In 1808, when Hunt was three, her sister Sarah was born, and the two grew up in what Hunt describes as a "happy—cheerful—joyous" home. According to Hunt, the years her parents had spent without children had allowed them "a season for improvement…. No mental dyspepsia marred their blessing." They were avid readers, discussed their ideas freely, and were never bored with each other in their marriage. In adulthood, Hunt idealized the marriage and her mother's role; her mother's intellectual life led Hunt to advocate behaviors for wives and mothers that were the antithesis of married women's ideals of her time. Ironically, Hunt's mother had fulfilled the traditional role as "mother," not the ideals that Hunt proffered.

From 1820 to 1860, the expectations for female behavior were so rigid that historian Barbara Welter later coined the phrase the "Cult of True Womanhood" to explain the attitudes of the period. The trend, which reached its height during Hunt's lifetime, maintained that the sphere of a woman's influence was limited to the home, and the four qualities embodied in the idealized "true" or "good" woman were purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. In contrast, what Hunt came to recommend for women within marriage was self-fulfillment rather than self-abnegation, while continuing to believe that their obligation as mothers was to provide their children with a nurturing environment as the salient ingredient for their full development. Since she never married or had children, Hunt never actually lived by the tenets she upheld.

Early in life, Hunt developed a love of books and learning that overrode her interest in domestic chores. As she wrote, "I was not a useful child in many of those domestic arts which tend to make others happy." Her first schooling consisted of lessons from her mother in their small waterfront home at the foot of Hanover Street. Later, she attended private schools. At home, she was encouraged to read widely, discuss what she had read, and be frank, which helped to cultivate her lasting conviction that the value of education for women was in offering a real and tangible pathway to self-fulfillment through work. Hunt's adolescent years were filled with study, dances, and family associations. Her exuberance for life and a distaste for any fossilized ideas may have been the impetus for her nickname, "Zion." She later recalled the invocation of an aunt, who would say, "Zion, lift up thy voice; be not afraid!"

At age 22, with the encouragement of her parents, Hunt began a school upstairs in the family home. Although she loved teaching, she never felt it to be her true vocation, and the pleasures of that year were overshadowed by the death of her father in November 1827.

The turning point in Hunt's life came when her sister became severely ill. The family doctor who treated Sarah was a "regular" physician who followed the current beliefs of traditional, or allopathic medicine. Medical practice at the time was based primarily upon the then-popular belief that all people had a finite amount of "vital force" which had to be kept in balance, and that illnesses in women generally stemmed from problems of the uterus. To restore the proper balance in the body of an ill person, an allopathic physician would purge it of "putrid matter" by bleeding the patient, through cupping or the application of leeches, to the point of fainting. Other techniques included blistering or the ingesting of turpentine and mercury. In treatment for what seems to have been tuberculosis, Sarah endured "blisters and mercurials … leeches, calomel, and prussic acid—four drops three times a day." As Hunt wryly noted, "I marvelled—all this agony—all these remedies—and no benefit!"

After more than 100 professional calls over almost a year, the sisters deduced from scouring medical texts that Sarah's case was not understood, and they resolved to resort to "a quack." In an era devoid of strict licensing and regulations, about 20% of those recognized as practicing medicine were alternative healers, who also sought to cure their patients through a balancing of the vital force. Their methods were generally based on less drastic treatments, however, involving small amounts of drugs, medicinal herbs, and water, which were categorized under the practices of homeopathy, botanics, and water curists. The principles of alternative medicinal practices often overlapped, but what they had in common was a requirement of self-sacrifice in their followers, dependent upon a change in the patient's lifestyle that often conflicted with cultural norms. The water-curists, for example, advocated a vegetarian diet, exercise, and loose clothing such as bloomers, as well as cold water therapies instead of dramatic cathartics.

The Hunt sisters' firsthand experience with alternative medicine began with a Mr. and Mrs. Mott, an English couple new to Boston who described themselves as physicians, but were alternative healers. Although Hunt never revealed the exact teachings of the Motts, many of her beliefs proffered throughout her career were closest to the water cures. In Sarah's case, she was diagnosed as consumptive, and recovered completely after treatment involving a combination of alfalfa and cold-water therapy.

Inspired by her sister's recovery, Hunt closed her school in 1833 and moved with her mother and sister into the household of the Motts, where she underwent two years of training. In 1835, along with her sister, she set up a practice. In recognition of their mother's political astuteness, the sisters followed her advice not to include midwifery in their practice, to avoid any conflict with regular physicians who could perceive them as insinuating themselves into general family care; traditional female midwives were already under attack by male physicians.

The first patients seen by the Hunts were mostly women and children who turned to them as a last resort, after their cases had been abandoned as hopeless by allopathic physicians. Concentrating on female physiology, the sisters took a new tack, stressing diet, bathing, exercise, rest, and sanitation. One of Hunt's first recommendations to patients was to throw away their medicine, start a journal, and use the lives of their mothers as inspiration; for some women, she even prescribed dancing. Although barred from hospital practice because they were not schooled through a medical institution, the Hunt sisters began to demonstrate a success that attracted patients from the "highly cultivated, the delicate, and the sensible." And the more patients that Hunt saw, particularly among women of the upper- and upper-middle class, the more she viewed their illnesses as stemming from unhappy lives. Believing in the liberating power of education, she was enraged that girls tended to be educated "for nothing but marriage," with a view "to their future sale for wealth, social position, a home, or any other terms on which a dependent, and ambitious—a weak and silly woman, may be obtained." Over the years, Hunt's interest in the connections of the internal life of women to mental illness increasingly informed her work.

In 1840, Sarah's medical work ended with her marriage, but Harriot continued to build up her practice. She also took on a more public role as an advocate of health education, the financial independence of women, and social reform. In 1843, recognizing how often the spread of disease was rooted in ignorance of the human physique, she organized the Ladies Physiological Society in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to counsel women to be less dependent on physicians. At a time when the delivery of a lecture by a woman was a daring act in itself, she taught women about their own bodies, with a sense of conviction that was so strong, she said, "it seemed a holy thought." Encouraged to discover members of the group reporting medical bills cut by half when they followed her prescriptions for healthy living, Hunt also became convinced by "the earnest looks—the friendly greetings and farewells—the religious element that kindled there," that women priests were needed as well as physicians.

Hunt's sister gave birth in 1843 to a frail baby girl named Harriot Augusta in honor of her aunt, a child Hunt described as "spiritualized to me from her birth." Children's health took on a new importance for the healer, who felt that her love for the child "opened new avenues of love for others. This was her mission for me." Three boys would also be born to Sarah, but Hunt idolized only her little "Sunbeam," while calling upon mothers to oversee the diet, air, exercise, sleep, and bathing of themselves and their children. She declared, "Mothers! never leave your children to the care of servants, foreign or native!"

In 1845, Hunt's beloved niece died. In her bereavement, Hunt was "saddened, afflicted, and disappointed" and questioned her views of religion which up to this point had provided her little comfort. That year, she turned to Sweden-borgian religion and said soon after that now, "my patients were my family; and a new purpose to labor more effectively for women, seized my soul. My profession seemed hallowed to me. My love for my sister had become stronger. She was now my all. But she was a wife and mother, and I must be wedded to humanity." As much as she preached mutuality and service to others she remained independent. Sarah had suggested many times that she join Sarah's family, but Hunt continued to live separately and pursue her practice.

In 1847, following the death of her mother who had been her lifelong friend and companion, "Hours of loneliness were often spent in my solitary home and I might have sunk below the blow had not the angel of mercy visited me, and inspired me with the thought of endeavoring to enlighten my sisters on the 'laws of life.'" That year, Hunt applied to Harvard Medical School and found her application denied as "inexpedient." Furious at what she called this "safe and non-committal" rejection, she said that the day would come when "wondering eyes will stare at the semi-barbarism of the middle of the 19th century."

Refused training as her outlet against lone-liness, Hunt turned to travel for the first time. In 1848, she made her first visit to an alternative community at the Shaker village at Shirley, Massachusetts. Witnessing such communities, in which women's roles were negotiated or otherwise equalized with men's, reconfirmed her conviction that social reform was the remedy for women's inferior social status. Toward this end, she began to offer free public lectures in physiology and hygiene in 1848, but the effort resulted eventually in a combination of fever, exhaustion and depression until she was forced to take a rest. Following her own prescription of rest, fresh air, and "the free use of water internally and externally," she slowly recovered, with time to reflect on illness as a benefit, as "it draws around us such tender, sweet, and holy spirits."

In 1850, Hunt attended the first National Women's Rights Conference, held in Massachusetts, and found herself among a number of like-minded women, including Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright Davis, Lucy Stone , and Antoinette Brown Blackwell. "Think what were my reflections when I retired that night," she wrote. "There was a resurrection for women—I rejoiced in my inmost soul, and rose the next morning buoyant as a child."

Invigorated by the event, Hunt again applied to Harvard Medical School, and on December 5th, 1850, she was admitted by the dean of the Medical Faculty, Oliver Wendell Holmes. Unfortunately, she was too ill at the time to take advantage of the opportunity. Her failure to attend gave rise to rumors that appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript, which reported that the men of Harvard's senior class were already upset over the admittance of three blacks and had petitioned protesting her entry. Hunt never attended lectures at Harvard and never publicly addressed the issue of this episode, but one cannot help but wonder if the negative public attitude toward her assertiveness kept her away. In any event, the publicity that surrounded her acceptance at the school contributed to her being awarded, three years later, with the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine from the Female Medical College of Philadelphia.

In her autobiography, Glances and Glimpses, Hunt testifies to her devotion to female patients and social change. Yet the book is underscored by a sense of intense loneliness. She describes herself as "having a strong spice of romance in my nature," as a schoolgirl. "I formed many love attachments with the school-girls, entered into correspondence with them, sometimes anonymous." In her day, same-sex attachments and relationships were encouraged for young women. But unlike some of her friends, Hunt's same-sex loves were never supplanted by marriage. Throughout her life, her primary relationships were all with women, and as an adult her frustration with men, especially professionals, was voiced in ways that verged on loathing. She critiqued fathers and husbands and attacked men in politics, medicine, and law, arguing that "Men keep women ignorant, frivolous, and helpless." She was unable to reconcile the chasm between her idealized view of marital union based on her parents' marriage and the "monotonous half-life" of the women she observed daily. She lamented the ways that the exhaustive duties of motherhood caused women to cease interior growth and relinquish reading, discussion, and thought.

In her later years, Hunt argued eloquently for women's higher education, and she actively encouraged women to enter the professions of law, medicine, religion, and police work. In 1868, she hosted the founding meeting of the New England Women's Club, and her activities were followed regularly in the newspapers, while her consulting practice continued late into her life.

According to Blake, shortly before the community-wide celebration of Hunt's 66th birthday, the union between Hunt's medical service and her patients was publicly and privately sanctified, in a service observing the anniversary of her wedded devotion to her profession. A ring was placed upon the doctor's finger, and 1,500 friends, including three generations of patients, were present to offer congratulations. "Oh, I have been so happy in my work," Hunt told them; "every moment occupied, how I long to whisper it in the ear of every listless woman, 'do something, if you would be happy.'" At the later birthday celebration, Hunt rejoiced further in the affection of her patients and friends.

Three years later, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt died in Boston. Often called the first woman to practice medicine in the United States, she penetrated previously male-dominated institutions, particularly medicine, and was an ardent advocate of women's education. Equally important was her contribution to the cultural debate on the rights and roles of women within marriage. Her lectures to increase medical self-knowledge of women and their inner lives raised the self-esteem and quality of life for thousands who heard her, making her a model for independent and self-reliant women then as now.


Blake, Mary Stafford. The Woman's Journal. Vol. 3, no. 47. November 23, 1872.

Boston Morning Journal (obit). January 5, 1875.

Hunt, Harriot K. Glances and Glimpses or Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1856.

James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: a Biographical Dictionary. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Leavitt, Judith Walzer, ed. Women and Health in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Levin, Carole. "Harriot Hunt: An Affirmative, Healing Woman," in Women: A Journal of Liberation. Vol.7. no 3, 1981, pp. 40–41.

suggested reading:

Gevitz, Norman, ed. Other Healers: Unorthodox Medicine in America. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Wood, Ann Douglas. "'The Fashionable Diseases': Women's Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth Century America," in Clio's Consciousness Raised. Edited by Mary S. Hartman and Lois W. Banner.

Roberta A. Hobson , graduate student in history at San Diego State University and author of "Judith McDaniel, Writer and Activist; Seeking Herself," in Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States, 1993

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