7 Questions with Susan Brandt, author of “Women Healers: Gender, Authority, and Medicine in Early Philadelphia”

Susan Brandt is a Lecturer in the Department of History at UCCS.

When Susan Brandt, Lecturer in the Department of History at UCCS, first began studying the craft of women healers in early American history, she assumed she would unearth histories of women creating simple herbal remedies. What she found was completely different: a flourishing tradition of women up and down the medical hierarchy, working in roles as diverse as cancer specialists, bonesetters, apothecaries, eye doctors and nurses.

Women healers, Brandt discovered, offered the majority of medical care in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America — and were treated as medical authorities. But their stories have been largely untold in American history. Brandt wanted to bring them into the light.

This is the focus of her new book, “Women Healers: Gender, Authority, and Medicine in Early Philadelphia,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2022. In it, Brandt documents the authoritative nature of women’s healing work in early Philadelphia. She shows how medically skilled Euro-American, Indigenous and Black women blended their practices into hybrid healing cultures, and even how these women became early participants in the emerging capitalist marketplace by selling pharmaceuticals and medical advice door-to-door.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored women’s roles as essential frontline healthcare workers who are often underpaid and undervalued. Women practitioners are also underrepresented in histories of early America, and their contributions have been obscured by narratives of male physicians and scientists,” Brandt said. “One goal of my book is to write women back into the histories of medicine and science in early America.”

To share more, Brandt answered seven questions about the book and her findings below.

1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?

“Women Healers,” Susan Brandt’s new book, aims to “write women back into the histories of medicine and science in early America.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored women’s roles as essential frontline healthcare workers who are often underpaid and undervalued. Women practitioners are also underrepresented in histories of early America, and their contributions have been obscured by narratives of male physicians and scientists. Nonetheless, Euro-American, Indigenous, and Black women provided the preponderance of medical care in their households and communities.

These women were not inflexible traditional practitioners destined to fall victim to the onward march of Enlightenment science, capitalism, and medical professionalization as many standard medical histories suggest. By contrast, over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women practitioners found new sources of healing authority, engaged in the consumer medical marketplace, participated actively in scientific knowledge production, and resisted physicians’ attempts to marginalize their practices.

The pandemic reminds us that women healers and their longstanding essential medical work deserve recognition. One goal of my book is to write women back into the histories of medicine and science in early America.

2. How did you get the idea for your project?

When I embarked on a second career in history after my first profession as a nurse practitioner, I was captivated when my dissertation advisor introduced me to Elizabeth Coates Paschall’s eighteenth-century medical recipe book. Paschall was a Philadelphia Quaker healer who kept a detailed manuscript describing her extensive medical practice. As I read Paschall’s descriptions of her remedies and patient encounters, my mind strayed back to the 1980s, when I worked in a clinic in a medically underserved area in the North Carolina mountains. I remembered meeting lay healers and granny midwives who described their medical recipe books that had been collected, curated, and passed down through generations. Although I was ostensibly the health care expert, these respected practitioners offered me medical advice and herbal remedies.

I knew that I should be recording these oral histories, but I was distracted by the demands of work and family. Opening Paschall’s recipe book revived my exchanges with these women, and I realized that I could honor them by writing a history of women healers. I also lived near the lands of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees. When I visited their new museum in the 1980s, I was intrigued by the Cherokees’ efforts to preserve their unique cultures, including a holistic culture of healing that encompassed both personal and community wellness. My experiences piqued my interest in writing my dissertation and book on women healers.

3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process? 

Recovering the lives and practices of women healers in archives that privilege male contributions to medical and scientific narratives was a challenge. To unearth women healers, I visited over thirty archives, libraries, and historical societies in the U.S. and the U.K. I sifted through sources that included medical recipe books, letters, diaries, newspapers, legal documents, published herbals, city directories, popular health books, and scholarly medical tomes — to name a few. I initially assumed that I would find women who practiced their healing craft using simple herbs.

My research focus broadened significantly as I discovered the diversity of women healers and their work. Women practitioners of various social orders, including women of color, worked as doctors, apothecaries, bonesetters, cancer specialists, midwives, eye specialists, herbalists, and nurses. I was surprised to find that many participated in an emerging capitalist marketplace by preparing and selling popular patent medicines and by peddling pharmaceuticals and medical advice door-to-door. This freewheeling eighteenth-century medical marketplace with few legal constrictions was a very different environment from ours in the twenty-first century. Over the course of the project, I expanded my definition of “women healers” to construe healing in its broadest sense to encompass a spectrum of paid and unpaid healing work, including diagnostic, prescriptive, therapeutic, pharmaceutical, obstetric, and nursing services. Women’s healing practices could incorporate any combination of these categories, often changing over the course of a lifetime.

4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?      

The narratives of women healers of the past speak to issues that reverberate into the twenty-first century. The ongoing gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields reflects the long history of women’s marginalization in disciplines that form the basis for healthcare-related jobs. The gap is particularly acute for women of color.

The complex causes can be traced to systemic educational and social inequalities. However, several studies suggest that the lack of educational curriculum highlighting women’s past engagement in medicine and the sciences exacerbates the problem. My students confirm their lack of instruction in the history of women in medicine and science. Educational researchers have underscored the importance of diverse historical role models for women and have stressed the need to accentuate the history of women in healthcare and the sciences at all educational levels. By telling stories that enliven the struggles and successes of women health care workers of the past, I hope to provide students with role models and strategies to navigate contemporary cultural barriers.

5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?           

I work best in the mornings in my home office.

6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?

In 1855, Dr. Ann Preston addressed the incoming class at the first women’s medical school in the United States, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. Preston had received her medical degree from the college in 1851. She now offered encouragement to women medical students embarking on a ‘new and untried course’ of professional medical education. The history of women physicians in the United States often begins with the 1850 founding of the college in Philadelphia, and the battles that women like Preston faced as male doctors attempted to impede their medical training and marginalize their practices. However, the narrative of women as medical practitioners has much deeper roots. Preston and other mid-nineteenth-century women physicians continued the legacies of women healers who had played a central role in the provision of health care for centuries…

This book recovers the medical activities of early Philadelphia-area women and demonstrates that Female Medical College professors and students stood on the shoulders of numerous women who had practiced medicine, nursing, and pharmacy. It was no accident that the first women’s medical school was founded in Philadelphia. Rather, it was the result of unique circumstances that supported a robust culture of women’s public health care work in the region for almost two hundred years. In fact, Preston’s ‘new and untried course’ was merely one signpost on a well-trodden path populated with medically skilled women.

7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?

My exploration of eighteenth-century women’s recipe manuscripts introduced me to a flourishing culture of patent medicines and self-help remedies. For my next project, I would like to analyze what the study of patent medicines as material objects circulating around the Atlantic basin can tell us about the production and diffusion of medical knowledge and authority. Medicines such as Daffy’s Elixir, Stoughton’s Bitters, and Turlington’s Balsam of Life played a role in creating a culture of medical consumerism in which health became a commodity that money could buy.

UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.