Profiles in Kentucky Medicine and Science is dedicated to the men and women who have made contributions to medicine, science and other humanitarian efforts for the people of Kentucky. Profiles will include physicians, scientists, and nurses who made a lasting impact in medicine and science in Kentucky and the nation at large. Profiles will be added to this page on a regular basis. If you would like to see a specific person profiled on this page, please contact us.
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Dr. Mary Ellen Britton was Lexington, Kentucky’s first female African American physician. Dr. Britton earned a degree from Berea College and then earned her medical degree in Michigan where she returned back home to Lexington and practiced medicine. Dr. Britton was an activist as well as a schoolteacher in addition to being a physician. Dr. Britton was one of the founders of the Colored Orphan Industrial Home. Dr. Britton’s activism centered around segregation laws of the time and she fought vehemently to see these unnecessary laws overturned. Dr. Britton was a talented writer and orator and she managed to touch the hearts of many people in Kentucky with her powerful speeches.
Dr. Thomas T. Wendell
Thomas T. Wendell was born in 1877 in Nashville, Tennessee to Alfred and Clare Wendell. In the post-Civil War south, Wendell attended college at Meharry College in Nashville, Tennessee earning a degree in pharmacy followed by a degree in medicine. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Wendell moved to Lexington, Kentucky where he became Eastern State Hospital’s first African American physician and soon became noted as a pioneer in treating Kentucky’s mentally ill. Dr. Wendell spent around two decades at Eastern State Hospital (Lexington, Kentucky) where he tirelessly worked to improve the treatment of Kentucky’s African American patients. In 1922, Dr. Wendell’s civic efforts resulted in the building of Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School (Lexington, Kentucky). In early 1953, a $1,250,000 building was completed at Eastern State Hospital and was named in honor of Dr. Thomas T. Wendell. Kentucky State Senator R. P. Moloney, during the dedication of the building in honor of Dr. Wendell, was quoted as saying, “Never before has any building at a state institution been named for a living man, to my knowledge.”
In October of 1953, Dr. Thomas T. Wendell died, leaving behind a legacy that was unrivaled in many ways. He served the people of Kentucky for more than five decades. Kentucky remains proud of Dr. Thomas T. Wendell; civic leader, physician, and humanitarian.
Frances Jane Greenleaf Coomes
Frances Jane Coomes has been attributed as the first female to practice medicine in the United States. The wife of William Coomes, they were a party of Catholic emigrants who located in Kentucky during the 18th century. Both were from Charles County in Maryland. From Maryland, Frances Jane Coomes brought with her a supply of calomel. This was a mercury chloride chemical used as a purgative and fungicide and was also quite expensive. She developed a substitute an extract of the bark of white walnut by boiling the bark into a syrup-like form and was then made into pills. During battles with the “Indians” it was noted that Coomes would probe for and extract bullets when she could. During the 18th century, her grandchild was born with congenital talipes calcaneus which was the rarest of all forms of club foot. Coomes treated the child surgically and cured the child quite rapidly of its ailment. She made hickory splints and kept in position with bandages that were changed every few days. Another “celebrated” case was that of a man from Virginia who specifically sought out the woman doctor’s services. The man had a chronic ulcer on his lower extremities which had developed into a severe lesion. Coomes warned the man that, if he could withstand the pain that he would have to endure, she would be able to cure him. Her operating table was primitive and made out of a piece of timber that was hewn for that purpose and allowed her to strap the patient down to immobilize them. The man from Virginia was strapped to her operating table and she created a ‘dam’ of clay around the wound in order to protect the healthy tissues. This would involve applying an escharotic which is a corrosive salve in order to produce a thick and dry scab. Coomes poured hot boiling lard over the affected surface. The procedure was incredibly painful, but the cure worked.
Though she never attended any formal medical college and never received the degree of Doctor of Medicine, she did serve an apprenticeship under Dr. George Hart in Fort Harrod, modern-day Harrodsburg.
“She was a woman of remarkable intellect, great originality and fertility of resource, and of strong and noble character.”
Notes: Frances Jane Greenleaf Coomes was Kentucky’s first school teacher and was noted, in many instances, as being the first woman to practice medicine in the United States. Historically, however, medicine healers had been around for many years, including females. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to become credentialed in medicine in the United States and also had ties to Henderson County, Kentucky.
(From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 15 June 1906)
Dr. Ephraim McDowell
Dr. Ephraim McDowell was known as a pioneer Kentucky surgeon. He was the father of abdominal surgery, most famous for successfully completing the world’s first ovariotomy. Dr. McDowell, who was born in Augusta County, Virginia in November of 1771 was the son of Kentucky Judge Samuel McDowell. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1792-1793. Shortly thereafter, Dr. McDowell called Danville, Kentucky his home where he began practicing medicine. On Christmas in 1809, Dr. McDowell performed a first-ever surgical procedure on Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford from Green County, Kentucky. Mrs. Crawford has suffered with a mass in her abdomen which caused growing pain and affected her activities of daily living. At the dawn of the 19th century, this was surely a death sentence. Dr. McDowell, however, decided to operate on Mrs. Crawford to remove the massive, 20-pound tumor from her ovaries. The surgical operation took less than half an hour and the only anesthetic was a cherry bounce which included drops of laudanum. Dr. McDowell used a room in his home as a makeshift operating room. Mrs. Crawford was fully conscious for the entire procedure and was restrained in order to prevent involuntary movements. Mrs. Crawford was 45 years of age and lived for another three decades thanks to Dr. McDowell’s breakthrough procedure.
It was in the late 18th century when Dr. McDowell and Dr. Adam Rankin opened an apothecary next to his house. Dr. McDowell went on to practice medicine in Danville, Kentucky until he died in June of 1830 where he was buried next to his wife.
(From the Advocate-Messenger, Danville, Kentucky, 24 December 1978 and the Paducah Sun, Paducah, Kentucky, 20 August 1975)
In the 1920s, Mary Breckinridge , with her own money, founded the Frontier Nursing Service to provide healthcare to those who had no access to it. Breckinridge would ride miles on horseback just to reach patients. The primary goal of Frontier Nursing Service was to provide midwifery services but also to improve the general health of people in the mountains of Kentucky. In its first thirty years, the dedicated nurses of Frontier delivered more than 12,000 babies, inoculated nearly 214,000 adults and children, and treated more than 53,000 patients of all ages. Before her death in 1965, Breckinridge took part in the opening of the areas first ever hospital and she lived to see her dream come true.
“In her were combined the tender healing arts of a dedicated nurse, the hardheaded acumen of a practical business man, and the rich charm of a wise and cultured personality.”
Dr. Grace M. James
Dr. Grace M. James, a trained pediatrician, was the first black staff member of the “old” University Hospital and the first black woman to join the University of Louisville School of Medicine faculty. Dr. James served as an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics. Additionally, Dr. James was the first black woman to be a member of the Jefferson County Medical Society. Dr. James practiced for 37 years seeing more than 100 patients a week; she later championed preventing teen pregnancy and health care delivery to Louisville’s poorest neighborhoods.
Dr. James made her mark on the Kentucky medical community and for the citizens of Louisville. Like Dr. Thomas T. Wendell and the others profiled on this page, Dr. James was a humanitarian that fought in the face of adversity for most of her life and career. For her contributions to Kentucky, we are grateful for her service.
Dr. Louise Caudill
Dr. Louise Caudill, a graduate of Morehead State College and the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Dr. Caudill practiced in Morehead to “sick hill-country patients” starting in 1948 along with her head nurse, Susie Halbleib. Dr. Caudill hearkened back to her very first maternity case in which a record snowfall hit on February 2, 1948. Along with her nurse, Susie, they were summoned to a home far back in the hills. Both women had two pairs of pajamas, slacks, fur-lined shoes, and sheepskin-lined jackets. They drove in their car as far as they could go and were met by a man who drove two horses that were hitched to a crude wooden sled. Dr. Caudill and Susie climbed onto the sled and they glided back into the snowy hills. They eventually arrived at the one-room shack just after midnight; the only source of heat coming from a tiny drum stove. The husband, an old woman, and two small children stood beside the expecting mother. Dr. Caudill noted that one of the children was very ill. Interestingly, Dr. Caudill said she realized there was a third child but because the only source of light came from an oil lamp, she hadn’t noticed the child before. Approximately 300 children were named for Dr. Caudill and Susie and she went on to say, “for the most part, the hill people are fine and substantial.” She said a hill woman once said, “All you have to do is believe in God and that woman doctor, and s’ help me, you’ll live forever.”
Pioneers like Dr. Caudill and nurse Halbleib have made their marks on Kentucky history and in the hearts of thousands of Kentucky’s mountain families.
Katie Agnes Smith
Miss Katie A. Smith, the daughter of Gran W. Smith, was noted in newspapers as being the first lady embalmer in the south. In a time when embalming was done almost exclusively by men, Katie Smith worked tirelessly to develop a solid reputation and level of expertise that exceeded her male counterparts; that level of expertise managed to travel its way through many southern states. In a 1900 interview with the Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, Kentucky), Miss Smith said that in order to practice undertaking one must not be educated in the classics and art but rather possess knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, the vascular system, visceral anatomy, and general and serous cavities. Miss Smith accepted a range of deceased individuals but specialized in women and children cases.
Miss Katie Agnes Smith broke barriers for women in Kentucky and the nation at large by foraging her way through a male-dominated industry. She took her work with the utmost of seriousness and continued her training whenever possible. Though she followed in her father’s footsteps as an undertaker, make no mistake; Miss Smith was dedicated to her profession and to the people she served.
Dr. Lillian South
“Kentucky born and bred,” Dr. Lillian South was noted as the only woman state bacteriologist in the United States. Dr. South’s one main goal was to, “serve Kentucky and protect her health.” Dr. South was the director of the Bureau of Bacteriology and Epidemiology in which she organized under the auspices of the Kentucky State Board of Health. Dr. South’s laboratories, in the State Board of Health Building, were open day and night and the only state laboratory to give 24-hour service. She took residence in the building with night bell registers at her bedside. Dr. South was a graduate of the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia and was noted as saying that her home state of Kentucky was the only state in the union progressive enough to be interested in her specialty of bacteriology.
At the time, Dr. South was the only woman ever elected vice president of the American Medical Association. She founded the only school in the south to train laboratory technicians and was a member of a dozen medical societies and social organizations.
Doctors Henry and Sarah H. Fitzbutler
Henry Fitzbutler was born in 1842 in Virginia to his enslaved father and a mother who was an indentured servant from Great Britain. In the antebellum south, Henry’s parents were worried of his future and so they made the trek to Canada via the Underground Railroad. It was then that Henry received the education he needed to fulfill his dream of becoming a physician. Henry attended college in Michigan and was the first African American to graduate from the Medical College in Detroit, Michigan. In the mid-1860s, Henry married his wife, Sarah, and they would eventually moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Dr. Henry Fitzbutler helped to found the Louisville National Medical College which trained “Negro” physicians in Louisville, Kentucky. Additionally, his wife Sarah became the first African American female to receive a Doctor of Medicine in the state of Kentucky. She was a graduate of the Louisville National Medical College. Henry was also the first African American physician in the state of Kentucky.
Henry soon became a civil rights activist, including lobbying the Kentucky legislature to approve the Louisville National Medical College. The College operated from 1888 until its closure in 1912 and graduated a total of 175 African American physicians. In 1894, the College created its own hospital, Louisville Hospital, in two houses neighboring the College of Medicine. Despite its limited fiscal resources and access to a large teaching hospital, the College received good marks in the Flexner Report. Ironically, one of the reasons the College had to close was due to a curricular change from the AMA in response to the Flexner Report. In addition to being a physician and civil rights activist, Dr. Fitzbutler helped to publish two newspapers in Louisville. Dr. Fitzbutler died at the age of 59 in 1901 from bronchitis. His wife, Sarah, taught nurses at the College and was noted as spending her later years helping treat the indigent in Louisville. She died in 1922 in Chicago.
Dr. Henry Fitzbutler managed to accomplish many “firsts” during his short life; both in the state of Kentucky and throughout other areas of the nation.