I first stumbled upon Dr. Adele Hutchinson through a small news item in the Minneapolis Journal newspaper. What caught my eye was the statement that she was entering the last year of her second term on the Minnesota State Board of Medical Examiners. Surprised by this statement of fact, I quickly double checked the date of this news item—November 26, 1903. This meant Dr. Hutchinson had joined the Minnesota board in the mid- to late-1890s! I immediately suspected—and now feel confident in stating—that Adele Hutchinson was the first woman to serve on a state medical board in this country.
This distinction alone makes it worth remembering Dr. Adele Hutchinson but I suspected there was an equally interesting story behind her journey into medicine and later onto the Minnesota board. This news clipping shared just enough about her career to tantalize. Mostly it brought to mind several questions. Who was Adele Hutchinson? What was her life story? How did she end up in Minnesota? How did it come to pass that she was appointed to the board?
Not satisfied to just leave her as the answer to a trivia question, I decided to do a little digging. What I have learned is surprising—not only was Adele Hutchinson the first woman to serve on a medical board but two of her women colleagues succeeded her on the Minnesota board…and that the suffrage movement in Minnesota appears to have played a significant role in these appointments.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start by placing some context around women in medical regulation. In 2020, women comprised 36% of all physicians with an active medical license in this country according to the census produced by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB). Similarly, women accounted for 34% of the total membership on state medical boards when last I looked in 2018. These figures aren’t particularly surprising…and yet it is easy to forget that they stand in stark contrast to the fact that at one time the presence of any woman on a state medical board was uncommon—even a rarity.
As recently as 1985, fewer than half of all state medical boards had women serving. Going back even further, and despite the lack of a complete set of board rosters to review, there is photographic evidence that remains quite telling. I reviewed all of the group photos of medical boards published in the Federation Bulletin between 1956-1984. While the photos weren’t inclusive of all medical boards, what was published showed only 6 women out of 256 people captured in these pictures.
To be honest, with this kind of evidence in hand, I was shocked to find Adele Hutchinson serving on a state medical board in the 1890s. If I had been forced to hazard a guess as to when any woman first served on a state medical board, I would’ve selected a much later date, probably the 1920s or ‘30s.
So what do we know about Dr. Adele Hutchinson?
She was born in Andover, Massachusetts sometime in 1847 to Robert Stuart and Helen Christie Hutchinson. Adele attended the Boston University School of Medicine where she graduated in 1877. According to the 1903 news item, Adele and her classmate Mary Swain (also B.U., class of ‘77) arrived in Minneapolis soon after their graduation.
Apparently the two women determined to throw in their lot together practicing medicine. Their decision was a pragmatic one based upon Hutchinson’s statements to the reporter for that 1903 article in which she reminisced on opportunities out West and their comparable lack in the East. Hutchinson cited the strong “prejudice” against women physicians in the East, especially at the time she and Swain graduated. Despite the antipathy of the male-dominated profession, women were obviously interested in the practice of medicine if Hutchinson’s graduating class was any indication—nearly half of her senior class (16:38) were women.
The decision to go West to practice medicine seems a bold move. After all, Hutchinson knew no one in Minneapolis; Swain had only shirttail relations whom she had never met. Hutchinson later laughingly attributed their leap of faith as much to “ignorance” as to courage. Still, Hutchinson felt the West offered a true opportunity for women to be judged based upon their talents rather than their gender. In describing the situation in Minnesota in the late 1870s, she stated: “When a woman failed the blame was not placed at her sex but at her personal ability. It was the individual who could not grasp success, and women were deemed as capable as ever.”
The two women roomed together at 416 Fifth Street in Minneapolis for some time. Swain apparently found their western adventure a bit much and, homesick for family back in Massachusetts, she left Minnesota after a few years.
An important early success for Dr. Hutchinson was her acceptance to the Minnesota Homeopathic Society. This was no accident. The Boston University catalogue makes clear the homeopathic basis for its medical instruction. Hutchinson had a strong education in homeopathic medicine and worked directly with faculty member Dr. Mary J. Safford-Blake who served as preceptor to Adele. Dr. Safford-Blake, with training in the United States, Breslau and Heidelberg, was acknowledged as an expert in gynecology.
Hutchinson and Swain were elected to join the Minnesota Homeopathic Society shortly after their arrival. By the following year, several more women physicians arrived in Minneapolis: Drs. Mary Hood, Martha Ripley, Mary Whetstone. All of these women put down roots in the area and became deeply engaged in medicine and civic affairs in the region.
Hutchinson established a successful practice for herself in Minnesota. She later served for many years as a physician staff member of the Minneapolis City Hospital…and more importantly she seemed to integrate smoothly into the homeopathic physician community. Hutchinson served as a committee member for the state homeopathic society studying the prospects for a medical college. The group recommended the establishment of a medical college and Hutchinson served as one of the school’s incorporators in 1886. Her engagement with the Minnesota Homeopathic Medical College (later absorbed as the Medical Department of the University of Minnesota) created the path leading not just Hutchinson, but two of her female colleagues at the college, onto the state medical board.
In my next blog post, I’ll explain this journey.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Federation of State Medical Boards
“Our Pioneer Women Doctors,” Minneapolis Journal. November 26, 1903.
“Adele Stuart Hutchinson,” Andover Townsman. May 28,1909
Boston University School of Medicine Fifth Annual Announcement and Catalogue. June 1877
William Harvey King, History of Homeopathy and its Institutions in America, Vol. 3 (New York: Lewis Publishing Co., 1905), 240-43.
“The First Woman Medical Examiner,” Minnesota Homeopathic Magazine, Vol 8, no 5, 1899, page 152