Once again, the faction in the Utah Legislature rallied to defend the rights of Utah's most abused group--white, male Mormons.
The lawmakers are concerned lest privileges accorded Utah's most populous group are not infringed upon by admitting too many women and minorities to the University of Utah medical school.
It took old age to make him appreciate medical science, but LDS Church Prophet Brigham Young took an enlightened view of women physicians. As early as January 1868, he recommended training women in anatomy, surgery, chemistry and physiology.
"The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys," Young announced in a general epistle to the church. Part of Young's motivation was the influx of non-Mormon doctors into Utah at the time. He found the notion of male obstetricians (particularly those of the "Gentile" persuasion) treating Mormon women disquieting. The prophet had considerable support from his 10th wife.
"We want sister physicians that can officiate in any capacity that the gentlemen are called upon to officiate," said Eliza Roxey Snow Smith Young, "and unless they educate themselves the gentlemen that are flocking in our midst will do it."
A few Mormon women already had remarkable medical careers. Patty Bartlett Sessions, famous as the "Mother of Mormon Midwifery," delivered 3,997 babies in her career--and lost few of them.
Swiss convert Nette Anna Furrer Cardon graduated as a physician from Geneva Hospital and later studied at Leipzig and Constantinople before crossing the plains in 1856.
Women founded their first formal medical organization in Utah in 1851 as the Female Council of Health. It met at least twice a month at the home of Brigham Young's first mother-in-law.
At October conference in 1873, Young announced he was sending Utah women to eastern universities to train as physicians. Some of the most remarkable women in the territory answered the call, and the next fall Romania Pratt, widow of Apostle Parley P. Pratt, enrolled in the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. Ellis Shipp joined her in 1875, working her way through school as a seamstress until graduation in 1883.
Pratt later married Apostle Charles Penrose and ran a school of obstetrics for 20 years as a resident physician at the Deseret Hospital, which the LDS Relief Society operated from 1882 until 1894. Shipp trained nurses and midwives throughout the territory and gave birth to 10 children of her own, four of whom died in infancy.
Martha Hughes Cannon continued Young's tradition and studied medicine at the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. Her degree from the National School of Elocution and Oratory helped her become the first woman state senator in the U.S. in 1896.
Since the University of Utah School of Medicine opened in 1905, it has been a jewel in the academic crown of Utah. Ironically, the medical school agrees with legislative arguments that its students should represent "our community, our state, and taxpayers." This means that women should make up half of next year's class, just like our state's population, instead of the current 36 percent represented this year.
Women physicians have long had community support in Utah. "This is one of the occupations in which qualified women can act to advantage," intoned the Deseret News in 1878. It was "a gesture of the woman's rights question we can endorse and support."
Historian Will Bagley's doctor is a woman.