Women physicians have long history in Wichita, MSSC
by Maurice Duggins, MD —
Women physicians may seem like a relatively modern occurrence, given the career and educational barriers women have faced. But half a dozen women practiced medicine in Wichita between 1875 and 1903, the year of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County’s founding.
One of the best-known early physicians was suffragist Dr. Nannie Stephens, who practiced in Wichita for 15 years. She moved to Kansas City in 1895 amid a notorious divorce that prompted The Wichita Eagle to declare: “It would seem that the girl who chooses a professional life should eschew matrimony ó motherhood.”
Dr. J. Ada St. John, who shared a 25-year practice with her husband, notably attended four home births on Christmas Day 1888. She later told the Eagle: “No matter how dark the night, how muddy the street or road, I could always take care of myself, just as well as a man doctor, and better than some of them.” She took care of even the poorest patients as well, sometimes noting in her ledger, “no father, no fee.”
Stephens, St. John and female colleagues including Dr. Mary Gage Day, who were members of the MSSC predecessor South Kansas Medical Society, promoted their medical practices in local newspaper ads through the 1880s and 1890s, sometimes touting “diseases of women a specialty.”
First woman MSSC member
The first woman to join MSSC may have been Dr. Sarah Noble, a 39-year-old Clearwater physician voted in on Jan. 18, 1910, with neither dissent nor fanfare, according to meeting minutes. Noble presented a paper at a May meeting before moving to Chicago that September.
Dr. Helen Moore, who joined MSSC in 1918 after moving to Wichita from Illinois, left for Topeka three years later to head the Kansas Bureau of Child Hygiene.
The first woman to make a durable mark on both the community and the society was surely Dr. Frances Schiltz, who joined MSSC in 1924. She was the first female intern at St. Francis Hospital and the first woman to serve as its chief of staff (1935). She also organized and directed women’s health services at then-Wichita University, and she was elected MSSC’s secretary for 1929-31 and vice president for 1946.
The MSSC roll book in the 1940s counts as members Schiltz and Dr. Ruth Montgomery-Short, Dr. Naomi Viscardi, Dr. Louise Ireland-Frey, Dr. Katherine Pennington, Dr. Ruth Page and Dr. Mildred R. Passmore.
First woman president
Still, by the late 1960s only 4% of MSSC members were women. It would take until 1985 for MSSC to elect a female president – Pennington, a pediatrician and the first female chief of staff at St. Joseph Hospital.
Pennington later reflected that she found few impediments for women in medicine, and that those who established practices during the war years were able to be seen simply as doctors, not just “women doctors.”
MSSC wouldn’t see another woman president until Dr. Linda Francisco’s 2011 term, followed by Dr. Donna Sweet (2014), Dr. Patricia Wyatt-Harris (2020) and Dr. E. Jeanne Kroeker (2022).
A 2020 research project based on oral histories of older MSSC women members found shared experiences of discrimination, harassment and unfair treatment, but few regrets. “All participants were attracted to medicine for altruistic reasons and encountered obstacles, discouragement, and even mockery in their efforts to become physicians. They met diverse challenges with determination, tenacity and hard work,” concluded authors Anne Walling, Kari Nilsen and Kimberly J. Templeton.
In 2023, as MSSC reaches the 120-year mark, more than one-third of its more than 1,000 active members are women, as are eight of its 13 board members and officers.
Women now make up more than 50% of medical students. As a result, the number of women physicians in Wichita will continue to grow – to the benefit of us all.