Stevenson, Sarah Hackett (1841–1909)

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Stevenson, Sarah Hackett (1841–1909)

American physician who was the first woman member of the American Medical Association. Born Sarah Ann Hackett Stevenson on February 2, 1841, in Buffalo Grove (now Polo), Ogle County, Illinois; died on August 14, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of John Davis Stevenson (a merchant and farmer) and Sarah T. (Hackett) Stevenson; educated at Mount Carroll Seminary; graduated from State Normal University (now Illinois State University), 1863; Woman's Hospital Medical College of Chicago, M.D., 1874; attended South Kensington Science School, London; never married; no children.

Admitted to the American Medical Association (AMA) as its first female member; was the first female staff physician of Cook County Hospital (Illinois); was the first woman appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health.

Sarah Hackett Stevenson was born in Illinois in 1841, the fourth of seven children of John Davis Stevenson of New York City and Sarah T. Hackett Stevenson of Philadelphia. Her paternal grandfather, Charles Stevenson, had emigrated from Ireland following the 1798 rebellion. In 1835, his wife's poor health compelled John to relocate to Illinois, where he established the first store in Buffalo Grove and later turned to farming.

Sarah the younger received her education at the Mount Carroll Seminary and the State Normal University (now Illinois State University), graduating in 1863. Interested in scientific subjects, she taught school for four years in Bloomington, Mount Morris, and Sterling, Illinois, where she also held the position of principal. Stevenson then moved to Chicago to study anatomy and physiology at the Woman's Hospital Medical College, which had recently been established there by Mary Harris Thompson . She also spent a year in London studying with Thomas Huxley at the South Kensington Science School. Stevenson returned to Chicago to complete her studies at the Woman's Hospital Medical College, where she received her M.D. degree in 1874, graduating as valedictorian of her class.

In 1875, after a brief period abroad, Stevenson opened her medical practice in Chicago. That year she also published a high school textbook, Boys and Girls in Biology, which was based on Huxley's lectures. In 1876, she was chosen as one of the delegates of the Illinois State Medical Society to the national convention of the American Medical Association (AMA) in Philadelphia. Five years earlier the AMA had refused even to discuss the admission of women, but this time, backed by William H. Byford, a prominent Chicago gynecologist, Stevenson became the first female member of the AMA. She also became the first woman to be appointed to the staff of Chicago's Cook County Hospital in 1881, and the first woman appointed to the Illinois State Board of Health in 1893.

Stevenson was professor of physiology and histology from 1875 to 1880, and of obstetrics from 1880 to 1894, at the Woman's Hospital Medical College, which became Northwestern University Woman's Medical School in 1891. While maintaining a large and successful private practice, she was also a consulting physician to the Woman's Hospital, the Provident Hospital, and an attending physician at the Mary Thompson Hospital. Together with Lucy Flower and others, she founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses in 1880.

An advocate of women's rights, Stevenson became the best-known female physician in the Midwest and, by example, advanced the cause of medical education for women. In 1880, she published a popular work, The Physiology of Woman. Throughout her life and professional career, she backed various humanitarian and reform causes, including the temperance movement. She served as the first superintendent of the Department of Hygiene of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1881 to 1882. In 1886, the Chicago WCTU organized the National Temperance Hospital (later renamed the Frances Willard Hospital) as an institution using no medicines containing alcohol, and Stevenson served as president of its staff. She lent her support to many causes, including the American Medical Missionary College of Chicago. She also spoke in support of admission of a black member to the Chicago Woman's Club, of which she was a member and president during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Stevenson suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1903 and retired from active practice. In 1906, she was honored by a reception attended by 1,500. Paralyzed thereafter, she spent the last three years of her life at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Chicago, the final year in a coma. She died, age 68, in 1909, and was buried in St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago.


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

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts

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Stevenson, Sarah Hackett (1841–1909)

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