Fabulous Finds: Dr. Elizabeth Mathews

Unusual is one description for the past 19+ months. The pandemic forced changes that impacted even genealogical research and learning. Closed repositories, travel restrictions, transitions to online learning, and potential time spent staring at the walls sent many a genealogist into their file cabinets to revisit the neglected past within.

As we tinkered with old finds and recycled duplicate or obsolete documents (goodbye, Soundex printouts), and as we sorted DNA match data for the umpteenth time in hopes of seeing it in a new light, we made discoveries. Some very cool discoveries. We should share our fabulous finds to shed a little bright light on our season of captivity, if you will.

One of my fun lock-down finds came as I was tossing around ideas for a case study. My great-great-grandmother, Julia Whelan, had two nieces who were physicians. Julia’s sister, Mary Whelan, married Thomas Mathews.[1] Two of the Mathews’ four daughters became medical doctors.[2] I wonder why I heard about a third daughter, Amanda, and her alleged “prune ranch” (which evokes thoughts of her riding a galloping horse as she lassoed errant plums), but never heard a peep about the sisters who became doctors in the 1800s.[3] I’m not judging, but often family members with fancier job titles get more conversation than those who wrestled with the weather (and errant plums) to earn a living.

As I thought about Dr. Mary (aka Minnie) Mathews Towers, born in 1858,[4] and her sister, Dr. Elizabeth Mathews, born in 1861,[5] I wondered how unusual it was for a woman in the United States to become a doctor in their era. Wondering does not generally produce answers, so I started to research. With libraries closed, I turned to online resources and to buying books. It never hurts to revisit online searches because new information and sources are added online daily. The beauty of books is that their footnotes and endnotes lead us to more books.

Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835–1920,[6] was a welcome addition to my library. It provided insight on the era when Mary and Elizabeth entered medicine. In part, the medical field was suffering from a declining reputation, causing many men to turn to other studies, which opened doors to women.[7] Those doors got a bit harder to open over time, but that is not my story today.

Three fabulous finds were discovered in a revised online search for Dr. Elizabeth Mathews, who generally got more press than her sister. The first was a blurb about Dr. Mathews in a Women’s History Month post, dated 18 March 2021, found on the Springfield (IL) Memorial Hospital’s Facebook page. The blurb was a welcome new source, and as a bonus they included Elizabeth’s photograph![8] I was determined to identify the source of the picture.

The second fabulous find was in the Spring 1995 edition of the medical journal Caduceus, digitized on Internet Archive. A new monograph, Practice & Progress: Medical Care in Central Illinois at the Turn of the Century, was announced. One of the booklet’s three authors wrote about Dr. Elizabeth Matthews (sic), who had an early practice in Springfield. The announcement included that a copy of the volume could be purchased from the Department of Medical Humanities, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.[9]

I did my best to ignore that this was a 26-year-old announcement and looked up the department’s phone number. What did I have to lose, time staring at the walls? I called and explained that I was looking for a book mentioning a family member, a book that they sold in 1995, according to an old Caduceus item. The woman on the phone did not bat an eye that I could see, but maybe she did. I was the phone. After looking up the title she reported they had one copy in their collection, which they wanted to keep. She asked if she could dig around in the storage closet to see if there were other copies, and then call me back. Gee, let me think about it! I didn’t expect her to call back so quickly after we hung up. They had one extra copy. Was I interested?

When Practice & Progress: Medical Care in Central Illinois at the Turn of the Century arrived in the mail, I learned the source of Dr. Elizabeth Mathews’ photograph. A better copy of the picture appears on page four. The image was “a gift from Matthews to Clarissa Hagler Jorgenson, reproduced here through the courtesy of the Sangamon Valley Collection, Lincoln Library, Springfield, Illinois.”[10]

I need to contact the librarian at the Sangamon Valley Collection about the photograph, and to see if there is more there on Dr. Elizabeth Mathews.

So many more questions. Whew.

What fabulous finds have you had over the past year and a half? Did you make a research breakthrough? Discover a new book that we all need to own? Let us know!



[1] “Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Marriage Records and Indexes, 1810–1973,” index and images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/1876/images/32365_225643-00259 : accessed 24 October 2021), Thomas Mathews and Mary Whelan marriage, 7 July 1851.
[2]1900 U.S. census, Hennepin County, Minnesota, population schedule, Minneapolis, ED 44, sheet 3A, p. 144 (stamped), dwelling 38, family 56, Mary Towers; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7602/images/4120278_00291 : accessed 24 October 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication T623, roll 767; Mary born June 1858, physician. “Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929,” database, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/7833/ : accessed 24 October 2021), Mary E. Towers entry, birth as 1857, death June 1927, license 1898, practice type Allopath. “Two Fair Medics,” Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, MN), Thursday, 2 June 1898, p. 5, c. 1; digital image, GenealogyBank.com (https://www.genealogybank.com/ : accessed 24 October 2021), Mrs. Mary E. Towers graduating College of Medicine, University of Minnesota, sister Dr. Elizabeth Mathews of Springfield, Illinois, attending commencement, sister Amanda is reading law. “Dr. Elizabeth Matthews, Noted Physician and Surgeon, Is Dead,” Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL), Tuesday, 11 June 1935, p. 1, cols. 4-5 and p. 4, c. 5; digital image, GenealogyBank.com (https://www.genealogybank.com/ : accessed 24 October 2021), daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Matthews.
[3] Family tradition from my mother, retold many times. 1930 U.S. census, Marion County, Oregon, population schedule, Shaw Precinct, sheet 3B, dwelling 62, family 62, Amanda Matthews; digital image, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4547510_00621 : accessed 24 October 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication T627, roll, 3375; Amanda was a farmer on a fruit farm, she owned her home.
[4] 1900 U.S. census, Hennepin County, Minnesota, Minneapolis, ED 44, p. 3A, Mary Towers, b. June 1858.
[5]  “U.S. Passport Applications, 1795–1925,” index and images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1174/ : accessed 24 October 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication, M1372, roll 455; Elizabeth Matthews passport, no. 4685 (issued 22 October 1895), born 12 January 1861.
[6] Ruth J. Abram, editor, Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835–1920, (New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.), 1985.
[7] Abram, ed., Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America, 1835–1920; Victorian mores also played a role, and some early women physicians practiced gynecology and obstetrics, in part.
[8] Springfield Memorial Hospital, “Dr. Elizabeth Matthews,” Facebook post, 18 March 2021, Facebook.com (https://www.facebook.com/MemorialMedical/photos/a.477983166524/10157376669711525/ : accessed 24 October 2021).
[9] “New Medical History Monograph,” Caduceus, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 60–61; image copy, Internet Archive, (https://archive.org/details/caduceushuman1111995unse/page/60/mode/2up : accessed 24 October 2021).
[10] J. Edward Day, Susan M. Harmon, Thomas D. Masters, Practice & Progress: Medical Care in Central Illinois at the Turn of the Century, (Springfield, IL: The Pearson Museum, Department of Medical Humanities, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, 1994).
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4 Responses to Fabulous Finds: Dr. Elizabeth Mathews

  1. Lisa S. Gorrell says:

    Wow, South Dakota & Dakota Territory laws in one post and the next on women physicians. All so timely. I, too, found that book on women doctors and have been reading it in my spare time. My husband’s great-grandfather had two sisters who became doctors, caring mostly for women and children, working in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.

    • debbiemieszala says:

      What fun! Both the the Mathews sisters were born in Michigan, but left there for other Midwestern states. Do you know where your sisters attended school? Elizabeth went to the Women’s Medical College of Chicago, and she set up a practice in Springfield, Illinois, but she also worked overseas. Her sister Mary Towers graduated from the School of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, and practiced in the Minneapolis area. I have found that newspapers were generous with articles about women physicians, but that might depend on location. I hope to do a lot more research on them. How can there never be enough time?

      • Lisa S. Gorrell says:

        Elizabeth McFall attended Indiana Eclectic Medical College (1888) and practiced in Indianapolis. I have found ads for her services in the newspaper. Her sister Mary Jane Crosby was a physician in Indianapolis, Louisville, and Carthage Mo. No idea where she attended school or when she died. An obituary might help with that data.

        • debbiemieszala says:

          Did either of them appear in the “Directory of Deceased American Physicians” on Ancestry? In my case, Elizabeth Mathews did not show up there, but Mary Towers was in the database. One other thought is that news of both women was printed in newspapers in places where they had connections. Their hometown, cities where siblings lived, where they attended school, etc. I am sure you have expanded the newspaper search since she was so mobile, but news of her death could appear in a way that obscures her name. For example, the newspaper where Elizabeth lived might mention that she was called away because of the death of her [unnamed] sister.

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