Many of us now resort to Google whenever we want to know something; in fact the ease of looking things up also makes it less important to retain any information. We can, we believe, be instant experts. In 1881, a group of women in Rochester, New York, decided that they had pressing questions to which they did not know the answer. They decided that ‘the only bad question was the one that went unasked’. Unashamed of their ignorance, they advertised the fact, forming the Fortnightly Ignorance Club. One of the earliest American women to graduate in medicine (graduating in 1851), Sarah Adamson Dolley, became the first President of the Club, and remained in office until 1893.
It seems unlikely that any male doctor at the time would have owned to ignorance but Sarah Dolley had never been one to stick to convention.
Born to a Quaker family of the Schuykill Meeting, Pennsylvania, she was encouraged in her interest in physiology by her cousin, Graceanna Lewis, a teacher, who went on to become a noted orthnithologist. After attending Philadelphia’s Central Friends School, Sarah determined to study medicine. She was inspired in part by witnessing the work of two of her uncles, who were doctors. She approached one of them, Dr Hiram Corson, to take her on as an apprentice, a common route to medical training at the time. He refused, so she approached a fellow young Quaker, an unmarried physician called Edwin Fussell, who agreed to teach her anatomy. Despite the Quaker acceptance of education for women, the fact of a young woman studying anatomy with an unmarried man caused such a scandal that her uncle was forced to reconsider his decision and Sarah became Hiram Corson’s apprentice. Her encouraging parents provided her with a study, textbooks and a skeleton.
Hiram Corson found his niece to be an outstanding pupil and he sought out a medical school that might accept her, approaching Geneva Medical College where English-born Elizabeth Blackwell had been accepted. That College had left the decision about admitting Blackwell to the students, believing the young men would never support it. After they did, the College quickly moved to ensure that no other woman would be admitted. Sarah Adamson’s applications to twelve other established medical colleges were rejected. Her uncle learned of a newly established progressive institution, the Central Medical College in Syracuse, New York, and to her great delight Sarah was accepted, along with two other women students, in 1849.
After graduation in 1851, Sarah sought a hospital internship and was the first woman intern in America, at the Blockley Hospital in Philadelphia where she gained invaluable experience. In June 1852 she married her former professor of Anatomy and Surgery, Lester Dolley. They opened a practice together in Rochester, where Sarah treated the women patients, since it was thought unseemly for women to attend men. Motherhood proved no barrier to her practice. Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1854 and son in 1856. The Dolleys were activists in the women’s movement and in the Underground Railroad.
Tragically, Lester Dolley died in 1872 at the age of 47. In the ensuing years Sarah set up practice with another woman doctor. From the early 1880s Sarah became an avid member of the Fortnightly Ignorance Club whose motto came from Socrates:
Only this I know, that I know nothing.”
According to historian Melissa Squires, the Club kept an ‘Ignorance Book’ where members recorded their hard-to-answer questions. Particular members took on the duty of researching the answers. One member noted that ‘so long as our ignorance holds out, and is replenished by new members, the lamp of our club will burn.’ Topics they studied included the following:
- ‘Has Darwin even considered that man is descended from the ape?’
- ‘What is panic? Is it of the mind or the body?’, and
- ‘Is sin like bile or bacteria?’
The dedicated group of women was clearly not content with easy answers of the Google kind. Together they undertook research which led to social change. Their enquiry, for example, as to why women could be teachers but couldn’t serve on school boards led the Attorney General of New York State to assert that women who met the required qualifications were indeed competent to hold such office. It is not clear what they concluded about the equation of sin with ‘bile or bacteria’ but we can admire the shared spirit of enquiry that flourished due to their willingness to admit ignorance.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- Dr Sarah Read Adamson Dolley
- Melissa D. Squires, ‘Sarah Adamson Dolley (1929-1909) First Female American Doctor, Leader of Social Change.’
- The Indianapolis Journal. January 01, 1889, p.3.