Who Was the First?


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This post written and copyrighted by Doris McCraw

We can document Julia E. Holmes, Harriet A. Leonard and Mary Helen Barker Bates in Colorado in 1878. These were early doctors, but there is one who precedes them all. The first documented woman physician, to the best of my knowledge, was Alida C. Avery. She arrived in Colorado in 1874, two years before Colorado became a state. She located in Denver and set up a practice at 339 Twentieth Street, on the corner of Champa. According to the ad in the Daily Rocky Mountain News Dated June 13, 1874, her office hours were from 10-12 and 3-5.

Alida Cornelia Avery was born June 11, 1833 in Sherburne, New York to William and Hannah Avery. Her mother died in 1842 when Alida would have been around nine. It is said she taught school at sixteen but in 1857 she began her medical studies at the Pennsylvania Medical College. She studied there one year. She eventually attended the New England Medical College in Boston where she received her MD in 1862.

In 1865 she joined the faculty of Vassar College as a professor and the resident physician. She remained there for nine years, at which time she left and moved to Colorado. The article in the Rocky Mountain News quotes the ‘Poughkeepsie News’ as saying that during her tenure not a single death occurred among her pupils. The Rocky Mountain News article also states that she usually had around four hundred in her care at any one time.

alida c avery

Alida was also involved in the suffrage movement. When it looked like Colorado would attain statehood a Territorial Women’s Suffrage Society was organized and on January 10th of 1876 at the meeting in Denver Alida C. Avery was elected president of that organization. She remained active in the movement throughout her years in Colorado and after moving to California in 1887.

Alida also strove to become part of the two medical societies that began in Denver in the early years, but they did not discuss allowing women until 1877. Even then they were still denied membership. By 1881 when Colorado started licensing physicians that no longer held true.

Dr. Alida Avery died on September 22, 1908 in San Jose California. Her obituary on ancestry reads as follows: San Jose, Sept 23 – Dr. Alida C. Avery, widely known as a physician and a woman suffragist, and for years prominent in the San Jose Woman’s Club, died yesterday. She was a graduate of Vassar and later of the New England Female Medical College and the Boston University School of Medicine. Her property was lost in the San Francisco fire of 1906 and she died penniless, aged 76 years. A brother, Dr. J. Dixon Avery of Pittsburgh and a sister Mrs. Harriet Bowen of Atchison, Kansas survive her.

As you can tell, even in the end all the facts are not correct, but what a life this woman lead. What determination and passions for what she believed. There is a lot more to learn of this pioneer, some of which just wouldn’t fit in this post. A women we should not forget.

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Below is the link to my non-fiction piece on the first state film commissioner in the United States included in this book.

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16 thoughts on “Who Was the First?

  1. Doris, what a remarkable and incredible woman, Alida Cornelia Avery. I’m thinking since her brother was a doctor, Alida must’ve come from a medical family. Women such as Alida paved the way for women’s rights and your bringing her into the light, gives credit to her life. In a man’s world, Alida no doubt suffered much criticism for having the audacity to break out of a typical woman’s role and become not only a doctor, but a woman’s advocate for equal rights. I applaud your post, Doris. I often wonder what history would “tell” if it had been written by women, instead of men.


    1. Sherry,

      I couldn’t tell for sure if her parent was in the medical profession, but she was from a family of eight, but not all made it to adulthood. The more I found and am finding just makes me admire her more. She is noted in books from that time. She was a force to be dealt with.

      Like you Sherry, I wonder what we would be ‘learning’ if women had more of a say in what the history presented. Doris


  2. It’s interesting that Dr. Avery was educated and practicing during the Civil War years? She must have been a very tenacious woman to endure the hardships and prejudice she fought. She sounds like an early pioneer in equal rights for women and with a record such as hers for healing I’ll bet she had people flocking to see her. Thanks for yet another wonderful history lesson – loved it!


    1. Linda,

      In a couple of references they make note of her determination and dedication. She along with two other early Vassar professors were called by the students and ‘The Trinity’.

      Her photo just makes me believe she could do what she set out to do. I thank you for the kind words and support. Doris


  3. I agree with the previous comments. Dr. Avery was a remarkable woman; she’d make a fine subject for a novel. I like that she was a mover and shaker in the Suffrage Movement. I also find it interesting that her obit says “her property was lost in the San Francisco fire of 1906 and she died penniless, aged 76 years.” If “property” means house — and I assume it does — I wonder if she was living there at the time. It must have been a terrifying experience, living through both the quake and then the fire.


    1. Mike,

      I am hoping to find out more about those last years. So far no luck, but that has never stopped me before. I am just surprised no one has done much with her life.

      At the rate I’m going I will need to retire again and write 10-12 hours a day to finish the stories of these remarkable women. (and I am going to give it the best I can.)

      Thank you for your comments and encouragement. Doris


  4. I find it fascinating that she was faculty as Vassar, and had a medical degree, but was not allowed, as a woman, to join the medical societies in Colorado. Of course, Vassar was a women’s school then, but still… wow. As you say, Doris, what a life. Stephanie


    1. Stephanie,

      When I first started researching her, I couldn’t believe no one had done a story on her. The more I read, and I do not feel I have researched enough for my satisfaction, the more her story amazes me. I just need more hours, less other work and lots of money and I could spend my time telling their stories.

      She was one determined lady and I don’t think she suffered fools gladly. She kept after the male doctors and eventually got her say.

      Some day I will get their stories done, in the meantime, I can share what I do have with the rest of the world. *Grin* Doris


  5. Every one of your posts makes me feel proud of what these women accomplished–and unhappy the information wasn’t available to me and my classmates fifty years ago. Thanks for finding and sharing their stories.


    1. Kathy,

      You are very welcome. The more I find, the more I find and just have to share. I’m a happy to let the world know who these women were and what they did. It is time. Doris


  6. Fabulous post, Doris. What a woman to look up to for those who met her-though I imagine many women of the time found her a bit strange. Wonderful life and an inspiration. Keep em’ coming , Doris. 😉


  7. Nancy,

    Thank you. I understand she didn’t suffer fools gladly. What I have been able to find is that she was a force to be reckoned with, but for those who knew her she was very caring. I think to be a doctor she had the traits that would make her a good one. That she didn’t loose a patient in the 9 years at Vassar is pretty remarkable. Doris


  8. Doris, you’ve done it again: inspired us and encouraged us, educated and enlightened us! You provide such great information and these women are such an inspiration! Thank you for sharing them with the rest of us, and all the best as you compile the information to share with others in some format!


    1. Gayle,

      Thank you. These women have become very special to me and I want to share and keep their stories and lives alive. I appreciate your support and encouragement. Doris


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