Thompson, Mary Harris (1829–1895)

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Thompson, Mary Harris (1829–1895)

American surgeon and professor. Born on April 15, 1829, in Washington County, New York; died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 21, 1895; daughter of John Harris (a mine owner) and Calista (Corbin) Thompson; attended Ford Edward Collegiate Institute; graduated from New England Female Medical College, 1863; Chicago Medical College, M.D., 1870.

Helped to establish the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children (1865); cofounded and taught hygiene, obstetrics, and gynecology, Woman's Hospital Medical College (beginning 1870); founded a nurse training school (1874); elected vice-president, Chicago Medical Society (1881); elected to membership, American Medical Association (1886).

Mary Thompson, one of the first American women to become a professional surgeon, was born in Washington County in upstate New York, in 1829, the second oldest in a large family of an iron mine owner. After receiving tutoring at her home in Fort Ann, Thompson attended the Troy Conference Academy in West Poultney, Vermont. She went on to the Fort Edward Collegiate Institute in New York, working as a teacher to support herself through school after her father's iron mine gave out. She then enrolled in the New England Female Medical College in Boston to study physiology and anatomy under the direction of Dr. Marie Zakrzewska , who soon inspired her to pursue a medical career. At the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Thompson worked as an intern under both Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell , well-known doctors. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first American woman to earn a medical degree.

Thompson graduated with an M.D. degree in 1863 and opened a private practice in Chicago, because it had no other women doctors with whom she would need to compete. Never marrying, she would remain in Chicago the rest of her life as a specialist in abdominal and pelvic surgery and the only female surgeon in the city. Thompson was also a general practitioner, instructor, and advocate for expanded opportunities for women doctors. Like all women doctors of the time, she faced personal and professional discrimination and ridicule from many male colleagues and the general public, who thought women were morally and intellectually unsuited to be doctors. However, her skill and dedication eventually won over enough colleagues to secure her election as vice-president of the Chicago Medical Society in 1881; she was also elected a member of the American Medical Association in 1886.

The first years of her practice passed during the Civil War. In this period, Thompson worked for the city's Sanitary Committee and led the effort to found a hospital to treat women and children exclusively. When the resulting Chicago Hospital for Women and Children opened in 1865, Thompson was made head of the medical staff. Hoping to obtain more specialized training, she began studying at the Chicago Medical School in 1869, the first year it allowed women students. She received a diploma the following year, immediately before the college shut its doors to women students once again; the other two female students she had studied with were forced to leave the school. At that time William Byford, a colleague and an instructor at Chicago Medical who supported women physicians, urged Thompson to open her own medical school. Byford served as the first director of Thompson's Woman's Hospital Medical College, where Thompson was an instructor in hygiene, gynecology, and obstetrics. The College implemented a training program for nurses in 1874. Renamed the Woman's Medical College in 1879, the school became part of Northwestern University in 1891.

Mary Thompson died after suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1895 at age 66. The Chicago Hospital for Women and Children which she had founded was renamed the Mary Thompson Hospital after her death. Thompson was buried in her native Fort Ann, New York.


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

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Thompson, Mary Harris (1829–1895)

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