Sherwood, Mary (1856–1935)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Sherwood, Mary (1856–1935)

American doctor and public health advocate. Born on March 31, 1856, in Ballston Spa, New York; died of a coronary occlusion on May 24, 1935, in Baltimore, Maryland; daughter of Thomas Burr Sherwood (a lawyer and farmer) and Mary Frances (Beattie) Sherwood; educated at the State Normal School in Albany, New York; Vassar College, A.B., 1883; University of Zurich, M.D., 1890.

Mary Sherwood was born in 1856 in Ballston Spa, New York, into an academic family which included her father Thomas Burr Sherwood, who gave up a law career for farming; her sister Margaret Pollock Sherwood , later an English literature professor at Wellesley College; and her brother Sidney Sherwood, who would become an associate professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University. Sherwood advanced from the State Normal School in Albany to Vassar College, where she earned an A.B. degree in 1883 and a post as a chemistry assistant until 1885. A teaching position in geometry and astronomy at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York, ended the following year, when she decided to embark on a career in medicine.

Although Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first woman to graduate from medical school in America over 30 years earlier, many American medical schools still refused to accept women students. Sherwood traveled to Switzerland to attend the University of Zurich, where women had been permitted to study for decades. Among the courses she took was one in bacteriology, then so new a field that few courses were taught on it anywhere in the world. After four years at the University of Zurich, she earned her M.D. degree in 1890. Her thesis was published in a German medical journal.

Sherwood returned to the United States and joined her brother Sidney in Baltimore. The recently established Johns Hopkins Hospital there declined to accept her for a residency because she was a woman, but several male doctors at the hospital were glad to have her work in their wards. In 1892, Dr. Lilian Welsh , with whom she had studied in Zurich and forged what would be a lifelong friendship, joined her in Baltimore, and the two opened an office together. It was Sherwood's "unbounded optimism and a kind of characteristic obstinacy," Welsh would later comment, that saw them through the rocky first years of the practice when patients were still suspicious of two women doctors. In addition to their private practice, Sherwood and Welsh took charge of the Evening Dispensary for Working Women and Girls of Baltimore, a charitable clinic, in 1893. The clinic provided other female physicians with much-needed experience, and also highlighted the need for better health care for women and children; over the 17 years she was involved with the clinic before it closed in 1910, this need would become an increasing concern for Sherwood.

In 1894, she accepted an appointment as medical director of the Bryn Mawr School for girls in Baltimore, and her professional relationship with Welsh continued as the latter assumed a similar position at the Woman's College of Baltimore (later Goucher College). Bryn Mawr was ahead of its time in offering medical care to its students and Sherwood (whose predecessor had been Dr. Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead ) headed up the efforts to treat and prevent disease. Her expertise in detecting the beginning stages of contagious diseases prompted the Baltimore Public School Board to retain both Sherwood and Welsh to examine teachers about to be hired to work in the public schools; she would maintain these examinations until 1923, when they were transferred to the purview of the Baltimore City Health Department. While also continuing to work at Bryn Mawr, in 1919 Sherwood became the first director of the Baltimore City Health Department's Bureau of Child Welfare. She organized the work of this new bureau and remained its director until 1924. In that capacity, she also became the first woman in the city to head a municipal bureau.

Sherwood attended to women's political as well as physical health. Perhaps remembering her own struggle to earn a medical education, she was active in the fight to open up Johns Hopkins' graduate schools to women students as a member of the Baltimore Association for the Promotion of the University Education of Women. She also advocated for women's suffrage before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920; 14 years before that, she had served as Susan B. Anthony 's physician while the ailing activist was in town for a convention. A member of numerous Baltimore government boards and the first chair of the obstetrical section of the American Child Health Association, Sherwood eased up on some of her many obligations in the later years of her life, but continued to work for the Bryn Mawr School until her death in 1935.


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

Ginger Strand , Ph.D., New York City