Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite: Medical pioneer, suffragist

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On Aug. 26 — the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment into the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote, the League of Women Voters will have a virtual celebration of Dr. Mary Holloway Wilhite’s role in support of suffrage and as role model for women studying medicine. In celebrating women’s right to vote, it is fitting to recognize this remarkable individual from our community who was a suffrage and women’s rights leader as well as our first local female physician.

When Wilhite graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1856, she became Indiana’s first licensed female physician. 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.

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. Her interest in politics may have been influenced by her father J. Washington Holloway, a cabinet maker who served as a county commissioner and was active in the building and shaping of Crawfordsville in its early years.

Finally in 1854, her savings and financial aid from a fund for needy girls made it possible for her to enter the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She completed her thesis “Constituents of Organic Bodies,” graduated in June of 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, four of whom lived to adulthood. Practicing medicine and raising a family did not prevent 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 was also vice president of the Indiana Equal Suffrage Association and organized the group’s 1880 Convention in Crawfordsville.

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 when they came to Crawfordsville, and Wilhite’s son Stanton was named after the great suffrage leader.

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

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. Wilhite died in February of 1892 from pneumonia contracted while making a house call.

A National Historic Marker in honor of Wilhite is being installed by the 2020 Indiana Historical Bureau and the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County at the former site of Wilhite’s home at the northwest corner of Wabash Avenue and Grant Street.

LWV has two additional projects commemorating Wilhite’s outsized contribution to our county’s history. Educator and League member Shannon Hudson has written a lively and illustrated 88-page book about Wilhite’s life, times and legacy that was previewed on Aug. 26. The League has also created a short film to honor Wilhite’s medical legacy by reflecting on women’s roles in medical care in our county. The film includes a video clip cavalcade linking the past to the present entitled “Montgomery County Girls Become Medical Women.” Both film and book will be available to the public by the end of August.

 

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government. works to increase public understanding of major policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For additional information about the LWV, which is open to men as well as women, visit website online at www.lwvmontcoin.org or send a mail to LWV, P.O. Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 47933.

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