The untold story of Hannah Glidden Myrick of Dorchester, an early champion of gender equity in the field of medicine

Hannah Glidden Myrick

Hannah Glidden Myrick was among the small number of women who graduated from medical school by the turn of the 20th century. Her path to The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine was not an easy one, starting with her early education at Boston’s Boys Latin School after being granted a rare exception as a female student. She went on to graduate from Smith College in 1896 and four years later became one of the first women to earn a medical degree from Johns Hopkins at a time when women were generally excluded from medical education.

She was born on Aug. 31, 1871, to James Howe & Mary Converse Myrick at their lofty, wood-framed house that once stood at 58 Sumner St. in Dorchester. Her father had success, beginning in the late 1840s, in the town of Tignish on Canada’s Prince Edward Island, where he managed three stores offering fishing supplies, clothing, and various dry goods. He married Mary Converse Merrill in Dorchester in 1854 and they maintained the house on Sumner Street as well as a home in Tignish where the family spent their summers.

The Myrick family left behind a strong legacy in Tignish after supporting the community in various ways, including the building of a wharf with railroad access to facilitate the importing and exporting of goods. The youngest of five children, Hannah was best described by her great-grand-niece through marriage, Carolyn E. Myrick, in the following excerpt from her book, “The Myricks of Tignish”:

“She was the youngest in her generation and, from all I can gather, the liveliest, with plenty of backbone. She had a keen, quick mind and wanted to be a doctor like Dr. Josiah Myrick and Dr. John Converse before her. She displayed an early interest in anatomy by dissecting crabs on the dining room table. Hannah attended Miss Clark’s school in Dorchester, then Miss Wesselhopt’s; but she was a misfit at all these institutions, because she did not ‘behave like a lady.’”

Myrick wanted to attend Boys Latin School, which offered requisite college preparatory courses that would allow her to pursue a career in medicine. Her parents were willing to enroll her into Girls Latin School, but at her pleading, she and her father met with the superintendent of the all-boys school to make arrangements for her to enroll there, which included hiring a tutor for her to learn Latin and Greek. She graduated in 1892 at age 20, went on to earn her BA degree from Smith College before pursuing the medical degree at Johns Hopkins.

The pace of women entering the white medical establishment was beginning to accelerate during this time. Johns Hopkins did not even have a medical school until the 1890s. If it had not needed financial help to get off the ground, perhaps the university would not have accepted women as early as it did. Four daughters of the original trustees of the university offered to raise $500,000 to open the school, but only if it would open its doors to “qualified women”. By 1892, the money was raised, and the school opened the following year – reportedly shocking people when it became known that three women were in the first class of ten medical students.

The temper of the time was generally hostile to women in many professions – especially for those who were bold enough to pursue a career in medicine. Elizabeth Blackwell, her younger sister Emily, and Marie Zakrzewska were three such women who endured a male dominant environment in the field of medicine - facing resentment and prejudice at every turn. These women were routinely patronized by men and in many cases despised by the community at large for their decision to pursue medicine as a career.

As the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, Elizabeth Blackwell, recalled difficult times when she would go out on night calls as a doctor and be followed and harassed in the street. If a patient died, she was accused of killing the patient and on occasions her hospital was stoned. Elizabeth is quoted as saying: “I know why this life has never been lived before. It’s too hard to work against every form of social opposition. I would like a little fun now and then.”

But fun was in short supply. Her sister’s medical education was discontinued by the institution she attended at the end of her first year due to pressure from the medical society. Zakrzewska had attained her ranking as a chief midwife in Germany, but due to opposition to women in the field of medicine there, she came to America to fulfill her dreams. She remembers being welcomed on campus by her male counterparts with disgust and hostility – and petitioning the institution to refuse her enrollment the following term. These three women forged ahead against tremendous, ferocious resistance, respectively earning their medical degrees at different times from various institutions - all by 1856.

Such tumultuous experiences by those earlier pioneers laid the groundwork for Myrick as she entered a similarly unreceptive and unwelcoming environment at Johns Hopkins in 1896. In a letter written to her sister back home in 1899, she vividly describes an old boy’s network atmosphere on campus during weekly social gatherings and the humor and grace with which she handled it:

“…several other M.D.’s had been having a social time in another room whence sounds of laughter and fumes of tobacco had been wafted to us all the evening, to give us some amount of their experiences….Meanwhile the butler served beer and polywater, pretzels, cakes, cigar, and cigarettes – I perjured my soul by assuring Dr. Jacobs who sat next to me that I didn’t object in the least to cigarette smoke. ….You would have enjoyed their talk muchly in spite of beer and smoke, one has to get used to little things like that, or lose half that’s going on…”

In duller times, Myrick had written a jingle used in her osteology course that she and classmates would chant to help bear the dreadfully boring material during study. She dedicated it to the instructor who she said was awfully bored by the subject himself: “Lord have mercy upon us and incline our hearts to learn these bones.”

Myrick’s pioneering spirit led her to break through the various barriers and challenges set before her en route to earning her degree in 1900.

Some 40 years before Myrick earned her medical degree, the Blackwell sisters and Zakrzewska had established the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. In 1859, Zakrzewska left New York to teach in Boston, where, in 1862, she opened the New England Hospital for Women and Children (NEWHC), which operates today as The Dimock Center. A teaching hospital established for women and run by women, this institution is where Myrick finished her residency and continued to practice with the goal of expanding the maternity department. Eventually, Myrick became the hospital’s superintendent. She also shared a private, two-person practice close to her family home in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner.

A prize-winning amateur photographer, Myrick was credited with developing some of the earliest X-ray film used at NEHWC, introducing and broadening the use of X-rays in the treatment of women and children. From 1922 to 1947, she worked at Schrafft’s Candy Company in Charlestown as a specialist in industrial medicine. During this period, she undertook special studies relating to the comfort and health of workers – many of them women - especially where part of their working day required them to perform in areas with steam or unusually high temperatures.
Myrick never married and had no children. Her career kept her quite busy, but she had two passions that she pursued for many years: one was gardening and the other was photography. The gardens around her Sumner Street home were well-maintained, vibrant, and she kept extensive annual journals about her activity there. She took black and white photos with assorted cameras and also did her own developing and printing.

An early adopter of color, by 1939 she was taking Kodachrome slides and making notes about many of her pictures as well as about the developing parameters and papers she used. In 1906, at age 35, she described the following premonition in a letter to a friend that demonstrated her humor amidst social pressures and her fascination with photography, an excerpt from “The Myricks of Tignish”: “I don’t see that it is up to me to devise some startling matrimonial scheme for the edification of my friends…I have a new camera with which I take atrocious pictures and squander my patrimony experimenting with it. It is well to have patrimony if one can’t indulge in matrimony. If my photographic fever lasts much longer, I shall have neither.”

In her later years, Myrick did not actively practice medicine, but she remained a tireless worker for her causes. She was an advocate for local medical and charitable activities, and financially supported a free dispensary in the Fields Corner neighborhood. She was also on the board of the Industrial School for Girls on Centre Street. Always a devoted healer, Myrick cared for her older brother, Edward, who after retiring from the family business in Tignish, returned to the Sumner Street home to live with her from 1942 until his death in 1957 at the age of 100.

Myrick lived at the family home until 1959 when the stately house was taken through eminent domain by the City of Boston and demolished to make way for elderly/disabled public housing called the Annapolis Apartments which still exists on that land. She subsequently moved to an apartment building at 50 Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, living with her cousin Josephine Bryant. After Josephine’s death in 1970, Myrick lived out her final years at the Wellesley Manor Nursing Home in Wellesley, reportedly maintaining her faculties and keeping up to date on current events. According to family, she had a remarkable rapport with and was well loved by the nurses there, who were entertained by her cheerful philosophy of life and sense of humor which Carolyn E. Myrick described in the following excerpt from “The Myricks of Tignish”:

“She was full of witticisms. One that made me chuckle was, ‘The rain falls on the just and unjust, but the unjust have the just’s umbrellas.’”

On Hannah Myrick’s 102nd birthday – Aug. 31, 1973 – Donald Dwight, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, presented her a commendation for her life’s contributions. Her death came two months later, on Oct. 23. She was buried in the family plot at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

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It’s important to remember the contributions women have made in the field of medicine in Boston. In the mid-1800s, educational opportunities for women were beginning to open up, although slowly. That all changed on the heels of the historic 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, and the change was advanced when Boston University School of Medicine was launched in 1848 as the first female medical school in the United States—and the world. In addition to the advances made by the likes of Zakrzewska and Myrick in Boston, we need to recognize Dr. Zakrzewska’s medical student, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who, in 1864, after studying at Boston University, became the first black woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. Dr. Crumpler’s story of overcoming a sadly common environment of discrimination for her gender and the color of her skin is truly remarkable. Crumpler, Blackwell, and Zakrzewska were all at the vanguard of women in medicine and their determination helped pave the way for other women who aspired to become doctors, including Dorchester’s very own daughter, Hannah Glidden Myrick.

Isaque Rezende is a Dorchester resident who enjoys researching the history of his neighborhood around Uphams Corner.

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