Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Wheaton graduate becomes doctor

Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler, who attended Wheaton in 1838-1839, was the second (and the first American-born) woman to receive an American medical degree. She also became the first woman professor at an American medical college (Central Medical College in Syracuse).   Married to the noted phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler, Lydia was herself a lecturer, author, and activist for temperance and women’s rights.

Born in Nantucket on May 5, 1822, Lydia Folger attended Wheaton Seminary in 1838-39 and then taught there between 1842 and 1844. An 1879 memorial remembrance in The Daisy: A Journal of Pure Literature characterized her as “an ardent student; but not satisfied with an education which would have made her pre-eminent among her sex.” Some said that she resembled her direct ancestor, Benjamin Franklin.

After her September 1844 marriage to leading American phrenologist Lorenzo Niles Fowler, Lydia began to lecture on phrenology, physiology, anatomy and hygiene to largely female audiences.  Her interest in reform and her experience on the lecture circuit, led her to support the temperance and women’s rights movements.  Lydia wrote several books for young people: Familiar Lessons on Physiology: Designed for the Use of Children and Youth and Familiar Lessons on Phrenology, Designed for the Use of Schools and Families (1847), and Familiar Lessons on Astronomy (1848), all published by the firm founded by her husband and brothers-in-law, Fowler & Wells.

Lydia and Lorenzo Fowler's marriage was extremely happy.  In her book Woman, Her Destiny and Maternal Relations; Or, Hints to the Single and Married (1864), Lydia wrote

No human being should be so dependent upon another that the termination of the life of one should terminate the sustenance necessary to the life of the other, unless it be in the case of children and parents; for God has given to every thinking human being some gift or power that can be developed for his or her own benefit and for the good of society.

When Lydia was dying in 1879, her sister reported to Mrs. Wheaton that Lorenzo had written,

I am most happily surroun[ded] by my family, with a wife exactly adapted to my wants, and children each doing their part in a work necessary to be done.  We enjoy ourselves when at the Office, and when at home enjoy ourselves there, and so it seems all enjoyment, and then there are few healthier or happier families than ours.

Lydia and Lorenzo Fowler, and her sister and brother-in-law Mary and the Rev. Cyrus Allen, maintained an active and close friendship.  The Rev. Allen had briefly held the pastorate at the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Norton, and one of their sons, named Laban Wheaton Allen, frequently visited Mrs. Wheaton during and after becoming a medical doctor. The Fowlers visited Norton and the Wheatons traveled to New York. Mrs. Wheaton, who practiced hydropathy and later took electrical treatments and sulfur baths, also seems to have been interested in phrenology.  Laban Morey Wheaton’s “description” by Lorenzo N. Fowler on May 8, 1848 during a trip to New York, reveal both Wheaton’s propensities and Fowler’s powers of observation.  Fowler noted Wheaton’s

… large Firmness and Self-Esteem.  You have any amount of independence and perseverance, from boyhood had strong desires to assume your own responsibilities, to follow the suggestions of your own mind, the bent of your own inclinations and suggestions without reference to those of others.… You are slow in making up your mind but are unchangeable when your plans are arranged.  Harsh measures and coercion make you more opinionated, but will yield to kindness and persuasion.…  Your attachment to the Ladies is Stronger than you evince.  You are much interested in their society, in the interchange of thought and feeling in a friendly manner.  Your friendships are very permanent, but you see few congenial Spirits with whom you can be free and confiding…, are not as gregarious as select and exclusive in the exhibition of affection, do not like to mingle in society “en masse” but are a social being & desire to have your chosen friends around you.  Your local attachments are strong, and not easily severed.  Many motives may lead you to travel, but there are associations which cluster around your paternal home that years of absence will not eradicate.  You have a great interest in the moral and intellectual improvement of children more than a caressing fondness for their society. Your moral brain is well developed and exerts a modifying and controlling influence.  Conscientiousness, Benevolence and Veneration are each large.…  With all your independence you are very diffident…. You … have an active conscience that serves you as a faithful mentor for … known duty, much sympathy, and desire to relieve distress.…  You want to do good as you live and are decidedly kind-hearted, not enthusiastic, speculative, and visionary but you have the element of sincerity and devotion for whatever subjects to which you devote your time and attention.

Your general financial talent is good, but your chief forte lies in making good plans and bargains.  There is a peculiarity arising from the combination of Combativeness and Mirthfulness, which gives you a desire to tease, hint at things, awaken curiosity, &c. but no desire to injure the feelings of others or, to mimic or caricature.

… You have a scientific and mathematical mind, have much curiosity…, a desire to gain information from the laws of the material world, have a poor memory of events, dates, and details, but remember forms, proportions and things by association.

You … condense rather prolong speech....  Your mechanical eye is good, … but your mechanical talent to execute and invent is not….  You are fond of order and arrangement, … good in figures and the computation of numbers, … are seldom deceived in your judgement of character, can select your workmen from your impressions of their faithfulness and fidelity.  You like to have influence, to exercise authority and are well calculated by nature to sustain that position in Society.  You think too much, are too deeply absorbed in reflection and meditation, are too reserved.  When necessary you have tact and management, are energetic, but seldom give vent to outbreaks of passion, have a good appetite, strong digestive apparatus and appreciate the luxuries of the table.

Although no phrenological study of Eliza Baylies Wheaton survives, a year later, while the Fowlers were visiting in Norton in March 1849, Lorenzo prepared a phrenological description of the Wheatons’ 14-year-old adopted son Laban Morey Wheaton Jr.  Among his many negative observations on the teenager, Lorenzo wrote,

You have a large brain, as large as a full-grown male head, very strong tendencies of mind, a great variety of ways in which your genius or character is developed.  Your mind can be gratified in a greater diversity of channels than is common for lads of your age.  Some of your greatest defects arise from small Concentrativeness.  You need more mental application, continuity of purpose & permanent industry.  You have an unusually wandering disposition, want to do everything on the spur of the moment.  You cannot think on one subject long at a time for your mind flies off like the tangent of a circle.  You will prefer a roving life … to a steady and settled one.  Your local attachments are not strong, and you have not enough home feeling.  You will show the same apparent fickleness in social matters, will see many that you will admire, but will not be satisfied to confine your attention to the few.

In 1849, when she was 27 years old, Lydia was one of eight women who enrolled in the newly established Central Medical College of Syracuse and Rochester, New York. Her cousin Lucretia Coffin Mott assisted her in her quest to enter the school. She was the only female graduate, receiving her medical degree on 5 June 1850 after only a year of study.  An “Eclectic”, rather than a mainstream medical school, Central Medical College’s curriculum emphasized the importance of plant remedies, diet and hygiene.  The “Eclectics” were the first to establish the policy of coeducation (a measure opposed by many mainstream physicians).

Lydia Folger Fowler was only the second woman, after Elizabeth Blackwell, to receive a medical degree.  Appointed to the faculty of Central Medical College the following year, she became the first woman professor in an American medical college, serving first as principal of the women’s department and then as professor of midwifery and diseases of women and children. After the college closed in 1852, Lydia established a medical practice in New York City, where she continued to specialize in the health of women and children.  She continued to write and lecture on hygiene, nutrition, physiology and phrenology, accompanying her husband on a tour of western cities. Lydia served as secretary at several women rights conventions, including at Seneca Falls, where she caught the admiration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would later dedicate The History of Woman Suffrage (1881) to Lydia, among others. Lydia was also the presiding officer at the Women's Grand Temperance Demonstration in Metropolitan Hall.

Thanks to legendary showman P.T. Barnum, we have a description of Lydia’s lecturing style. He had established the ”American Museum” in New York City in 1841, with an entertaining mix of education and bunkum.  In 1855, Barnum began to hold “National Baby Shows,” to which thousands paid admission to view the contestants.  In hopes of deflecting criticism that he was exploiting motherhood, and rather conferring social respectability and medical legitimacy to the Baby Show, Barnum scheduled a lecture by Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler.

The New York Tribune of June 8, 1855, described the lecture — and Lydia:

She was dressed in a very broadly striped silk, which was anything but a bloomer. Her hair was done up in a French twist with curls in front. Her face is pleasant, she has sunny blue eyes and a sweet mouth. She waved an elegantly embroidered handkerchief as she read her lecture. Quite a number of the little exhibited [babies] were present and contributed their full share to the festivities, at times almost drowning her voice, which is scarcely strong enough for a lecturer.

According to Peggy Baker, former director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Lydia’s “conventionally stylish clothing and hair style, her soft voice and, above all, her mannerisms seem almost calculated to contradict the polemics of those who, by arguing that women doctors would lose all modesty and delicacy, would have denied her a medical education.”

Lydia and Lorenzo’s first baby, Amelia, was born in 1846, followed by Loretta in 1850, and Jessie Allen Fowler, born in 1856.

The Fowlers embarked on another lecture tour through the United States and Canada between 1858 and 1860, and in August 1860, began a two-year tour through Great Britain, lecturing in Liverpool, Newcastle, Perth, and Edinburgh. Biographer Madeleine B. Stern noted that during this period Lydia Folger Fowler “found time for a trip to Italy, a winter of medical study in Paris, and a three-months’ stint in charge of the obstetrical department" of London's Marleybone Road Hospital.

[Madeleine B. Stern, Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971, p. 181]

Following a year’s return to New York during which she was an instructor in clinical midwifery at the New York Hygeio-Therapeutic College, Lydia and Lorenzo moved permanently to London, living at 62 St. Augustine’s Road, Camden Square. Lorenzo founded the Fowler Institute on Fleet Street in London, giving instruction on phrenology and readings and character analysis.  His main business was the production of high quality porcelain phrenological busts.

The Wheatons journeyed to England and the Continent in the spring and summer of 1862.  Lydia’s presence in London probably influenced Eliza Baylies Wheaton to accompany her husband and his cousin David E. Holman on what was largely a business trip. Eliza reported receiving two letters from Lydia as soon as the travelers arrived at their hotel on April 30. Lydia provided helpful information about London, finding fellow Americans in the city, and travel in Great Britain and Europe. Lydia called on the travelers almost immediately after their arrival, and Holman attended a lecture by Lorenzo Fowler. Lydia’s lively disposition and skill as local guide assured her of a position as one of the Wheaton party on the "Darby Day," of which neither she nor Mrs. Wheaton spoke afterwards without laughing.

[Harriet E. Paine, The Life of Eliza Baylies Wheaton: a chapter in the history of the higher education of women, Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1907, p. 120]

Lydia no longer practiced medicine, but she continued to write and lecture; shortly before her death in 1879, she estimated that, over a period of 30 years, she had lectured to 200,000 women in America and Europe. She published a variety of titles, including a temperance novel, Nora: The Lost and Redeemed (1863); lectures: How to talk - the Tongue and the Language of Nature (1864); How to Preserve the Skin and Increase Personal Beauty (1864); How, When, and Where to Sleep (186?); The Brain and Nervous System: How to secure their Healthy Action (186?); The Eye and Ear, and How to Preserve Them (186?); and How to Secure a Healthy Spine and Vigorous Muscles (1864).  Some of her lectures on childcare were collected and issued in the book The Pet of the Household and How to Save It: Comprised of Twelve Lectures on Physiology (1865). Heart-Melodies, her book of poems, some of which recalled her love of Nantucket, appeared in 1870.

In London, Lydia remained committed to social causes.  The Daisy noted that “Men, women and even children were suffering from broken physical laws — from intemperance and ignorance: here was a sphere for a philanthropist, and into it Mrs. Fowler threw herself, heart and soul.”   Her organizational abilities, energy and social nature were all appreciated, as Lydia was “decidedly of the mirthful type, being lively, cheerful and entertaining.”

Lydia’s dedication probably shortened her life. Lydia's elder sister Mary Folger (Mrs. Rev. Cyrus) Allen, herself a close friend of Mrs. Wheaton, wrote to Mrs. Wheaton on 19 February of 1879 that, ”Lydia worked hard all last Summer and Autumn in the Temperance Cause, and among the poor and needy in their religious society, (Dr. Parker’s, City Temple Church) and got completely rundown and was taken very ill Nov. 27.” Blood poisoning was followed by eight weeks of illness, and Lydia died of pleuropneumonia on January 26, 1879, at the age of 56; she was buried in Plot 23701 at London’s Highgate Cemetery.  Her headstone, now missing many letters due to an overgrowth of ivy, reads:


[L]o[vin]g remembrance

~ of ~












Lorenzo continued his activities in the phrenological movement.  In 1886, he established the British Phrenological Association, with its own journal and an active publishing and teaching program.  Ten years later, while visiting America, Lorenzo Niles Fowler died of a stroke on September 2, 1896; The New York Times published a lengthy obituary.

Lydia and Lorenzo’s daughter continued the family interest in phrenology.  Jessie Allen Fowler returned to New York after her father’s death and continued to promote phrenology until her death in 1932.

For further information, see Frederick Clayton Waite, "Dr. Lydia Folger Fowler: The Second Woman to Receive the Degree of Doctor of Medicine in the United States", Annals of American History, vol. 4, no. 3, May 1932, pp. 290-297; Peggy Baker, retired Director & Librarian of The Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum, for her scholarly article “The ‘First Family’ of Phrenology”, August 2004; Alice Dixon, "A Lesser-known Daughter of Nantucket: Lydia", Historic Nantucket, Winter 1993/1994, vol. 41, no.4, pp. 60-62; John B. Blake, "Lydia Folger Fowler", Notable American Women: a Biographical Dictionary, Cambridge: Radcliffe College, 1971, pp. 654-655; "Lydia Folger Fowler", Robert McHenry, ed., Famous American Women: a Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present, Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1980,  p. 139; "Fowlers", Herringshaw's Encyclopedia of American Biography of the Nineteenth Century, Chicago: American Publishers' Association, 1901,p. 277; Sue Young Homeopathy, " Lydia Folger Fowler"; Elizabeth Silverthorne, et.al., "Lydia Folger Fowler", Women Pioneers in Texas Medicine, 1997,  p. XXII; Ruth Clifford Engs, "The Fowlers", Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001, pp. 71-72; Marion Sauerbier, "Lydia Folger Fowler", The Crooked Lake Review, Oct. 1988.

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