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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Health & Medicine

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Woman doctor urges women be allowed to serve in U.S. Army on equal basis as men. December 13, [19]38. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Information about women's health and women's involvement in the medical profession may be found in a variety of manuscript collections, including such familiar sources as women's diaries, family correspondence, and the papers of medical practitioners and also in some unexpected places, including, for example, the papers of public relations executive Edward L. Bernays.

Some of these collections may be located by searching the manuscript records in the Library of Congress Online Catalog for likely subject headings such as: Physicians, Nurses, Medicine, Hygiene, and Psychoanalysts.

Other sources can be discovered only by plowing through hundreds of collections of family correspondence and diaries in which the writers unfailingly describe pregnancies, childbirth, illnesses, diseases, and medical treatments that they or members of their families experienced. Unearthing these latter sources requires a definite commitment of time and energy on the part of the researcher. A few examples illustrating the range of the division's holdings include the following:

  • Among the correspondence between Elizabeth Randolph and her father, William B. Randolph (7,500 items; 1696-1884; bulk 1795-1855), a prosperous Virginia plantation owner, are numerous letters detailing Elizabeth's treatment for an undisclosed medical condition in 1829-30, which involved leeching, bleeding, and a lengthy convalescence at a relative's home.
  • Both Louisa Lee Schuyler (1837-1926), a former U.S. Sanitary Commission volunteer, and novelist Constance Cary Harrison (1843-1920), wife of Burton Norvell Harrison (18,600 items; 1812-1926; bulk 1913-21), described in their diaries the charity work they did at New York's Bellevue Hospital in the 1870s.
  • In 1881, writer Mary S. Logan (1838-1923), wife of Gen. John Alexander Logan (46,000 items; 1836-1925; bulk 1860-1917) received the advice, presumably unsolicited, from a relative who wrote, “. . . you are approaching a time of life when great changes take place in the female system; when it is necessary to carefully keep away tendencies to congestion of the brain, which are always imminent when natural discharges cease.”17
  • At the end of her 1886 diary, women's rights activist Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903), wife of Frederick Douglass (7,400 items; 1841-1967; bulk 1862-95), noted instructions for curing various illnesses—such as consumption, diabetes, and apoplexy—by applying electrodes to parts of the body.
  • Located in the Arthur Family Papers (20,000 items; 1817-1972; bulk 1874-1972) are diaries of Myra Fithian Andrews Arthur (1870-1935), wife of rancher Chester Alan Arthur, in which she records her reaction to her husband's infidelities; her contemplation of suicide; her divorce; and her health, including a severe brain clot in 1904 and menopause in 1916, which she believed contributed to her husband's philandering. Myra Arthur spent several days in bed each month, perhaps while menstruating, and her diary entries for those days contain the one-word comment “unwell.”

These examples intend to show that by their very nature, collections of personal manuscripts contain a wealth of information about the health and well-being of the individuals and families featured in the papers. They also reflect the important role women have traditionally held in caring for the sick and elderly in America.

With the rise of the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century and greater wartime demands for their services, women's socially sanctioned role as family nurse-maids evolved into greater professional opportunities and medical training. The Library's manuscript collections document this development of women's medical careers beginning with Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell in the 1850s to Clara Barton and other women during the Civil War to the establishment of the Red Cross and the role its nurses played in World War I through the rise in public health nursing and the emergence of Margaret Sanger and others involved in various aspects of women's reproductive health. The papers of male doctors and of men and women active in mental health professions round out the division's holdings in medicine.

The following "Health & Medicine" collections are highlighted in these sections of the guide:

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. C. A. Logan to Mary S. Logan, November 27, 1881, container 6, John Alexander Logan Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text