Friday, March 14, 2008

Romania Bunnell Pratt Penrose, M.D.

In the October 1873 general conference, President Brigham Young issued the now famous proclamation that

If some women had the privilege of studying they would make as good mathematicians as any man. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes and raise babies, but that they should study law . . . or physic . . . The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.

Romania Pratt was one of the women who answered that challenge. With five children, the youngest 6 months old, it was not going to be easy. She and her husband, Parley (jr.), both sold important possessions so she could go east to study medicine: she sold her piano, and Parley sold his family home. She left her children in the care of her parents and boarded the train.

The path to her degree was not easy. She arrived late in the semester, and had to work hard to catch up. When she returned home for the first time, 2 of her children did not recognize her. Despite the earlier sacrifices, she ran out of money, and the Relief Society had to raise funds so she could finish her degree. But she endured and excelled: her dissertation was well-received, and she graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia. She was the first woman to leave Utah and obtain a medical degree (although several women already trained in the profession came to Utah at an earlier date). She stayed in Philadelphia for a time after completing her degree to receive additional training in the eye and the ear.

Parley and Romania divorced in 1881. In 1882, she opened her own practice on Main Street. It is likely she performed the first cataract surgery in Utah. Many male doctors were initially unhappy about her presence (they thought women doctors should only be treating women's health concerns), but she eventually earned their respect.

Romania was actively involved in improving the world she lived in. She was involved in the women's suffrage movement. She was a part of a group of women that opened a community hospital for those in need. She regularly wrote columns promoting better hygiene in the Young Women's Journal.

I'm inspired by her determination, intelligence, and courage. Despite great personal cost, she followed the counsel of the prophet, and she used the gifts that God had given her to serve others. For you BYU grads who lived in Heritage Halls, you may recognize her name because she would eventually have a residence hall named after her. I think it is marvelous that her name lives on that way, allowing the students who live there to follow her example of excelling in education and using that knowledge for good.

First Utah Woman Doctor, David Grow.
Romania Pratt Bunnell Penrose, M.D., Susan W. Howard.


Anonymous said...

I did a history project on her when i was a little girl! btw, her maiden name was Bunnell, so its actually Romania BUNNELL Pratt Penrose.

Brian and Marci said...

How did she divorce Parley? He had been dead since 1856.

Erin said...

Hi Brian and Marci,

Thanks for stopping by. I should have clarified that she married Parley Pratt, jr., who died in 1897of cancer of the stomach. And in that early period of church history, divorce was handed out like candy to women that wanted out of polygamy (in part to appease eastern critics that argued these women were being held against their will, etc).

I'll edit the post to clarify which Parley she married.