History

A Purposeful Path

Descendants retrace pioneering woman physician’s steps

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On a grassy patch of land at the doorstep of Wabash College, Joan Eaton and her daughter Dr. Claire Gibson have discovered the last pieces of a vanished landmark.

Stooping to the ground, they dig up chunks of brick, the chalky powder rubbing off onto their hands.

“It is so nice to be close to the history,” Eaton says as they look around the lot.

The women arrived from northern California to walk in the footsteps of Eaton’s great-grandmother, Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite, who in the 1850s became the first woman from Indiana to practice medicine as a medical school graduate.

Wilhite, who was a longtime champion for women’s equality, lived on the corner of West Wabash and Grant Avenue, where her home became a meeting place for prominent suffragists during the long fight for women’s access to the voting booth.

The site later became home to a church. Wabash College acquired the property and demolished the building.

A historical marker, which was erected on the site by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, lauds Wilhite’s role in opening a home for orphans and starting a local women’s suffrage association.

Wilhite wouldn’t be the last woman in her family to enter the medical field.

Eaton’s mother, Dr. Virginia Eaton, now 98, was the only woman to graduate from her medical school class at the University of Southern California in 1946 and worked as a pediatrician for more than half a century.

Gibson is pursuing the same career. As a medical school graduation gift, her grandmother gave her Wilhite’s sheepskin diploma. The family also has the medical book Wilhite used to treat patients.

“I didn’t know her story when I decided to go into medicine, but it’s a fun lineage,” said Gibson, who recently completed her chief residency.

Gibson’s older sister, Kate, started researching Wilhite’s life after reading about sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, who were the first women in the U.S. to receive medical degrees.

A keyword search led to a biography of Wilhite written by Crawfordsville Middle School teacher Shannon Hudson, who invited the family on a women’s history tour of Montgomery County.

The first stop was the former site of the county’s poor farm, where Wilhite treated residents.

“We feel very comfortable [that] Mary spent some quality time here,” Hudson said.

They also stopped in front of the homes of Wilhite’s friends Elizabeth Bonyton Harbert and Mary Hannah Krout. In 1868, Harbert and Krout were part of a group of more than 20 women, including Wilhite, who attempted to enroll in the all-male Wabash College but were turned away.

“Big things come out of small towns,” Gibson said.

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