“The first woman doctor in Lorain County was Dr. Harriet Warner who opened up an office on Herrick Ave. in Wellington. She had qualified as a doctor in a medical college, but because she was a woman a certificate to practice medicine in Ohio was denied her. Undaunted (and in fact illegally) she ‘hung out her shingle’ and started practice in the village. By bulldog persistence she did finally persuade the state to grant the certificate due her” (Robert Walden Notebook, #A214).
This brief biographical sketch was written by local amateur historian Robert Walden sometime around 1961. At that time, Walden was ninety-three years old and within a year of his own death. Even if he had known Dr. Harriet E. Warren personally, she had been dead for over sixty-five years. I have no way of knowing at present how many details of his story are correct, but I do know that several particulars–not least of which is the doctor’s name–are inaccurate.
Harriet E. Warren was born in Wellington in 1842. She was very bright and apparently teaching school by a young age. I have no notion of what made Harriet Warren want to become a professional healer in nineteenth-century Ohio, but by the 1870s she was studying medicine with local physician and druggist Dr. James Rust. She graduated from his alma mater, the Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College, in 1877; the school had begun accepting female students just six years earlier.
After a decade of practicing in Elyria, during which time she was active in both the Lorain County Medical Association and a public advocate of prohibition, Warren returned home to Wellington. In the little I have found published about her, I find no mention of the “illegal” nature of her work that Walden alleged. John Houghton, another local doctor and druggist, wrote of Harriet Warren: “Notwithstanding social and professional prejudices necessarily encountered in the practice of medicine by a woman, she built up a respectable and lucrative practice and had the confidence and esteem of her patrons and friends” (The Wellington Enterprise, 8-22-1894, pg. 4).
According to an advertisement that appeared in the Enterprise nearly one hundred times (see above), Dr. Warren lived and kept an office in the post office building, which was then located on South Main Street. Though run for many years out of John Houghton’s drug, book and stationery shop, in 1879 the post office had relocated four doors north, to a small, two-story brick building adjacent to Baldwin, Laundon and Company’s enormous corner dry-goods store. It continued to appear in that location on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for both 1889 and 1893.
In August 1894, when she was fifty-two years old, Dr. Harriet Warren was killed in a tragic accident. While driving a buggy to visit a patient north of town, Warren was thrown out of the vehicle and trampled when her horse took a fright. Another female passenger was unharmed, but the doctor was badly injured and unable to move. She was taken to the home of her brother, F. D. Warren. Drs. Rust and Houghton both came to offer medical assistance, but she died in the early hours of the following morning.
John Houghton delivered a lengthy and moving eulogy at her funeral, which was reprinted in the Enterprise. Her family had asked him to perform the task, he said, because “professional tastes and common sympathies, social, political and otherwise, conspired to bring us frequently in each other’s society and I may have come to know her more intimately than most others, save her near relatives” (8-22-1894, pg. 4). There were resolutions of sympathy from the Wellington Grange, and the Bible studies group of the Methodist Sunday School cancelled their lesson in favor of a memorial service attended by more than sixty people (9-5-1894, pg. 5). According to a description of the memorial service, “A picture of Dr. Warren was tastefully draped and the room decorated with flowers.” I have been unable to locate any such photograph. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in the Warren family plot.
I do not know if Robert Walden was correct in naming Harriet Warren the first female physician in Lorain County. In examining a forty-page publication called “Medicine in Lorain County’s First Century” (1960) by C. Ruth Zealley, I found no mention of her, though I did note the inclusion of Wellington doctors Daniel Johns and John Houghton. (A single paragraph discusses female practitioners, and mentions only Dr. Lydia Chapin Jump by name; she graduated from the same school as Warren, though seven years later, and worked in Oberlin.) I am so curious to know more about Warren’s life and professional career. Perhaps someone reading this is a relative and could shed some light through family papers or stories.
I will give the last word to her friend and colleague, John Houghton: “Modest and unpretentious, she yet had a vigorous intellect, a good memory, was an extensive reader and thoroughly in touch with all the progressive ideas and movements of the day. She had for her grievance the woes and misfortunes of the afflicted and oppressed, and in her efforts to compass their release knew no shrinking, no selfishness . . . Her wisdom, her good sense and womanliness, the brightness and strength of her intellect, her cheerful, charitable spirit, her modest yet dignified bearing, her intense love of nature and her appreciation of and tenderness for all God’s creatures were known to all who knew her. The spontaneous expression of sorrow from families who had known her professionally is a worthy tribute of her character.”
UPDATE: Wellington Genealogy Group president Marilyn Wainio generously shared some of her own research findings about Dr. Warren with me. She uncovered seven articles published about Warren in Elyria and Cleveland newspapers. The notices confirm her participation in the Lorain County Medical Association, as well as her being an active member of the Elyria Woman Suffrage Association. There is a passing reference to a Harriet E. Warren who was a published author; if this is the same person, I have not been able to learn what title(s) she wrote. Perhaps most interestingly, there are two pieces about Dr. Warren’s work as the “Dispensary physician” of the Women and Children’s Free Dispensary in Cleveland. The clinic, “organized by lady physicians of this city,” operated out of Cleveland’s Homeopathic Hospital College, where Warren had completed her medical training only two years before. “In addition to the resident dispensary physician, Dr. Harriet E. Warren, who is a most accomplished lady, and thoroughly fitted for her position and duties, there is a very efficient corps of attendant physicians, composed of six well-known lady physicians” (The Cleveland Leader, 1-31-1879, pg. 3). Leaving aside the question of whether Harriet Warren was the first female physician in Lorain County, it certainly seems that women doctors in northeast Ohio were not as scarce as one might have initially supposed by the 1870s.