Breaking the Barriers in Medicine: Women Pioneering Healthcare in Cayuga County


Last week we explored the life of well known women’s rights activist Emily Howland. This week we turn to a lesser known group of Cayuga County Quaker women who fought for equality in the medical profession.

The late 1800s saw more and more women showing interest in the medical profession, especially after Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate medical school in 1849. There were few opportunities for women to study medicine, as most universities declared they did not possess the resources to take on women because they would have to be taught separately from their male peers. Professors felt that women could not possibly be calm enough to assist in any emergency medical situation, and could not be taught “sensitive” subjects like anatomy in the same classrooms as the male students. Several schools were established especially for women but were considered inferior to traditional medical schools. Blackwell and her mentee Marie Zakrzewska, a midwife from Germany, began petitioning universities to admit women and founded the New England Hospital for Women and Children which gave female students a place to gain hands-on experience. 




“I well remember the day we read in the Boston papers that the University of Michigan had opened its doors to women in all departments…we five young women joined hands and danced around the table.”

–Eliza Mosher

Because of Blackwell and Zakrzewska’s work, several universities finally consented to admit female students. Four young women from Cayuga County and one from Massachusetts who were studying at the New England Hospital for Women and Children recall being overjoyed in 1870 upon learning that the University of Michigan would allow women into their medical school.

These four Cayuga County women, Eliza Mosher, Amanda Sanford Hickey, Anna Hutchinson Searing, and Elizabeth Hait Gerow, along with Emma Louisa Call, helped pave the way for future generations of female physicians.


Eliza Mosher

Copy of Eliza Mosher Chair Patent
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Copy of Eliza Mosher Desk Patent
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Eliza Mosher was born in 1846 in Ledyard NY and attended the Friend’s Academy in Union Springs before taking up the study of medicine in Boston, at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She had applied to the University of Michigan before they formally allowed women but was turned down, with a professor writing to her “For my part, I can not see how right-minded women can wish to study medicine with men!” 

When she was accepted in 1871, she knew being one of the first female students would be difficult but she and her friends were determined to receive medical degrees. They were allowed to learn the same subjects as their male peers, but had to attend separate classes as the university declared “a large portion of medical instruction cannot be given in the presence of mixed classes without offending the sense of delicacy, and refinement, that should be maintained between the sexes.”

Mosher and her fellow female students were amused by this proclamation and did not let it deter them from graduating at the top of their classes. Mosher in particular became adept at dealing with male peers, saying “my acquaintance with men, both as professors and students, gave me a conception of the workings of men’s minds which has been most helpful in my dealings with them in my later life.” 

After completing her degree, she opened a practice in Poughkeepsie, studied in London and Paris, became superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison, lectured at Wellesley and Vassar Colleges, and finally became the first dean of women at her alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Mosher was especially interested in posture and founded the American Posture League. She applied for several patents related to posture improvement, including a bike seat, reading desk, girdle, and bus seat. The bus seat was used for a time in the NYC transit system. She also designed the “posture model,” an articulated model of the human spine for teaching purposes. 

Amanda Sanford Hickey

Tracheotomy Tools

Amanda Sanford was born in 1838 in Rhode Island but moved to Scipioville as a young girl.
She attended the Union Springs Seminary, run by the Society of Friends, then taught at Emily Howland’s Sherwood Select School. Emily Howland encouraged Amanda to pursue her interest in medicine and she completed a year of study at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania before going to the New England Hospital for Women and Children. She was particularly interested in obstetrics, writing her thesis at the University of Michigan on Puerperal Eclampsia. 

After graduating she returned to Cayuga County, setting up a practice in Auburn. She helped found the Auburn City Hospital and served on staff until her death in 1894. At her urging, the hospital was equipped with a separate maternity cottage which allowed women to receive the best possible care during childbirth. She served as both president and secretary of the Medical Society of Cayuga County and continued her private practice as well. Interestingly, she was the first physician in Cayuga County to perform a tracheotomy, saving the life of a six year old.

Because of the challenges she had faced to receive her medical degree,  Amanda became passionate about women’s rights and she helped Emily Howland organize the Cayuga County Political Equality Club.

Anna Hutchinson Searing

Anna Hutchinson Searing was born in 1830 in Poplar Ridge. She attended Oberlin College and during the Civil War taught at the Miner School for Girls with Emily Howland. In 1869 she entered the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania but left in 1870 for clinical experience at the New England Hospital for Women and Girls. She entered the University of Michigan as a senior, receiving credit for the work she previously completed in Pennsylvania and Boston, and wrote her thesis on indigestion. 

Upon graduation, she was accepted into the Cayuga County Medical Society but decided to go to Rochester to practice with Dr. Sarah Adamson Dolley, the third woman in New York State to be licensed. Like Amanda Sanford Hickey, Anna became involved in the women’s suffrage movement and she helped set up the Provident Dispensary in Rochester, a clinic for women and children.

Elizabeth Hait Gerow

Born in 1845 in Ulster County, Elizabeth Gerow came to Cayuga County to attend the Union Springs Seminary. Acquainted with Eliza Mosher, she decided to follow Mosher and receive training at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. 

After graduating from the University of MIchigan, she and Eliza Mosher set up a practice in Poughkeepsie and both served as resident physicians at Vassar College.

Click Here to Explore Our Permanent Exhibit on Medical Practice in Cayuga County, Pioneer Physicians! Make Sure to Visit the Exhibit In Person as Well!