Ripley, Martha Rogers (1843–1912)

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Ripley, Martha Rogers (1843–1912)

American physician and suffragist. Born Martha George Rogers in Lowell, Vermont, on November 30, 1843; died on April 18, 1912, in Minneapolis, Minnesota; daughter of Francis Rogers and Esther Ann (George) Rogers; attended Lansing High School; graduated from Boston University Medical School, 1883; married William Warren Ripley, on June 25, 1867; children: Abigail Louise; Clara Esther; Edna May.

Elected president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association (mid-1880s); founded the Maternity Hospital, a home for unwed mothers, in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1887).

In 1939, a memorial plaque was placed in the Minnesota State Capitol's rotunda to honor "a champion of righteousness and justice," Martha Rogers Ripley. Born Martha George Rogers in Lowell, Vermont, in 1843, she moved with her parents to Iowa where the family—which eventually included four younger siblings—farmed and helped escaped slaves. Martha attended Lansing High School, but never graduated. Although she was employed as a teacher, she wanted to work in the field of medicine. Too young to be accepted for service as a nurse during the Civil War, she instead contributed to the war effort by raising money for the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

In June 1867, Ripley married William Warren Ripley, a rancher originally from Massachusetts, and shortly thereafter they moved to Middleton, Massachusetts, where William operated a saw mill. After the birth of her three daughters, Ripley became a police matron, but an epidemic of illnesses that swept through the area prompted her to act on her medical aspirations. In 1883, she earned an M.D. from Boston University Medical School (from which one of her sisters had also graduated). This degree proved pivotal to her family's economic survival when a mill accident left her husband severely injured, and he was unable to work. The Ripleys moved close to relatives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Martha supported the family by opening a medical practice. Her husband drove the buggy for her when she made house calls at night. As a specialist in obstetrics and children's diseases, Ripley fought to decrease the infant mortality rate. The crowning achievement of her successful practice was her establishment of the Maternity Hospital. Always demonstrating an advanced social consciousness in her work, Ripley initially established the hospital as a home for three unwed mothers in 1886. It quickly became evident that larger facilities were needed, and the permanent facility opened a year later. The hospital provided medical as well as social care for women regardless of economic need or marital status, and included indigent infants in its humanitarian mission. Ripley's prominent place in society was augmented by her position as professor of children's diseases at the Homeopathic Medical College, and her lecture tours in medical schools in nearby states.

Beyond acting as an advocate for women's health, Ripley was a dedicated activist in the cause for women's rights. She had joined women's suffrage groups at both the state and regional levels back in Massachusetts in 1875, working with Lucy Stone and her husband Henry B. Blackwell (brother of Elizabeth Blackwell ), and after the family's move to Minneapolis she quickly won election as president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association. She pushed for female representation on the city school board and demanded reforms within the schools, which she criticized for placing too heavy a burden on students. Ripley also joined in the effort to change the legal age of consent from 10 years to 18. Concerned about the impact of urban growth on public health, she promoted the incineration of garbage, pure water, better quarantine facilities, playgrounds, and the cremation of the dead.

Ripley's work came to an end when she died of a heart condition on April 18, 1912, after an illness brought on by exposure to harsh weather. Her body was cremated and her ashes added to the cornerstone of a Maternity Hospital building erected in her honor.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Ann M. Schwalboski , teacher and writing specialist, University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County