Tuesday marked the 184th birthday of Crawfordsville native Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite. In this 95th anniversary year of the ratification of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote, it is fitting to reflect upon this remarkable individual from our community who was a suffrage and women’s rights leader as well as our first local female physician.

When Mary Holloway graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1856, she became one of the first women in Indiana to earn a medical degree. Born on a farm in Montgomery County, Mary had to work hard to achieve her dream of a medical education. She took in sewing and taught school for four years to save the money for her tuition. Some neighbors were shocked and derisive of the thought of a female striving to be a doctor.

But even as a young girl, Mary worked for women’s rights. In 1850, she sold subscriptions for The Women’s Advocate, an early suffrage newspaper. Perhaps she picked up her interest in politics from her father J. Washington Holloway, a cabinet maker, who served as a county commissioner.

Finally in 1854, Mary’s savings and financial aid from a fund for needy girls made it possible for her to enter the Pennsylvania Medical College. She completed her thesis “Constituents of Organic Bodies,” graduated in June 1856, and set up her medical practice in Crawfordsville.

In 1860, at the age of 29, she married Eleazer Wilhite, a local tailor. They had seven children, three of whom died in infancy. Practicing medicine and raising a family did not prevent Dr. Wilhite from devoting time to the woman suffrage issue. In 1869, she chaired the organizing committee for the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Montgomery County and then served as its secretary. She also was vice president of the Indiana Equal Suffrage Association and organized the group’s 1880 Convention in Crawfordsville.

Dr. Wilhite wrote regularly on suffrage issues for the local newspapers. She was a fluent and forcible writer. Her poetic nature found expression in verse, and she wrote many short poems as well.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were guests at the Wilhite home (still standing at 300 W. Wabash Ave.) when they came to Crawfordsville. Dr. Wilhite’s son Stanton was named after the great suffrage leader.

Dr. Wilhite devoted her medical practice to the needs of women and children and also the African American community in Crawfordsville. In 1880, she headed the drive to establish the Montgomery County Orphan’s Home.

Dr. Wilhite was famous for her attention to her patients. Often accompanied by Susan Harter (mother of Anna Harter Walter), she went to any corner of town to relieve suffering. Dr. Wilhite died in February of 1892 from pneumonia contracted while making a house call.

Mary Holloway Wilhite’s home (at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Grant Street) is included as “Stop Six” in the Crawfordsville, Indiana “Women’s History Walking Tour.” Copies of the tour are available from the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County and the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum.

The LWV salutes Mary Holloway Wilhite, a true pioneer in women’s medical history and lifelong advocate for the rights of all women.

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(1) comment

mherbison

Hello! I work at the Legacy Center Archives at the Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. We grew out of the old Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP) which was the first med school for women (founded in 1850, going co-ed in 1970).

From your article, I was excited to learn about Dr. Wilhite, who like so many women physicians in the 19th century, was really a pioneer doing great work in serving her hometown community. She would have started her medical practice at a time when there were fewer than 150 women physicians in the US! (In fact it wasn't until the 1970s when more than 10% of doctors were women.)

Not wanting to "take credit" for Dr. Wilhite being one of our WMCP graduates, I want to point out that she appears to have graduated from Penn Medical University (PMU) in 1856. Penn Medical University was another med school in Philadelphia that admitted women -- it existed from 1853 to 1881. PMU very often gets confused with WMCP or with University of Pennsylvania (typically called simply "Penn") but was distinct from both of those schools. There's a bit more info about PMU here: http://bit.ly/PAxmcpmu

Thanks again for this great profile of a fascinating person.
Matt Herbison
archives.drexelmed.edu

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