The Trailblazing Practice of Dr. Adella B. Woods
Learning more about Erie's first female physician
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. It's not that women hadn't been in the medical field already. As the World Health Organization recently stated, "Women are the backbone of health care systems." That was true of the 19th century as well. Women were already an indispensable part of the medical field in the United States, but there had been systemic barriers preventing women from obtaining the degrees and licenses needed to have the official titles and pay grades of their male counterparts.
Blackwell's shattering of the glass ceiling came with significant challenges — and plenty of pushback, such as from one "country gentleman" who stated in a medical journal that women should stick to "looking after the latest Paris fashions" — but by 1857, she and her sister Emily proved the naysayers wrong. They founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and spent the rest of their lives advocating for equal educational access.
Meanwhile, in Erie County, Pennsylvania, a young girl named Adella Isidore Brindle was desiring an education beyond her elementary years. She was the granddaughter of Matthias and Elizabeth Brindle who moved to Northwestern Pennsylvania from Franklin County in 1801. On their 400 acres of land, they had built their "wilderness home," raising their family along Raccoon Creek and Lake Erie in what would become North Springfield, just west of Girard.
Matthias was very active in expanding the community. He involved himself in local politics, co-founded the Presbyterian Church, and helped establish the village's first cemetery. He and Elizabeth had 13 children together. Their son Samuel, born in 1807, would eventually meet and marry a woman named Mary Ebersole. They had four children: Catherine (who tragically died as a toddler), Samuel, Adella, and John.
Adella's childhood in Springfield was simple. The township was split into three villages with close to 2,000 residents by mid-century. They lived among fields of wheat and potatoes as well as grazing lands for cattle. The Brindles worked their land and the children received a basic education. Then in 1865, when Adella was 14, her parents moved the family to East Millcreek, just outside of Erie on Buffalo Road. The timing was ideal. The teenage Adella, determined to continue her education, was thrilled to learn that the new Erie High School was set to open on East Seventh and Holland.
She convinced her parents to let her attend and her mother rented a room for her on State Street where she lived during the week. After three years of studies, she and Ottomar Jarecki (who would go on to take over his father's downtown jewelry store and become a professional photographer) became the high school's first graduating class in 1869. Each received a "diploma of honor." Adella then went back one more term and in June 1870 earned the "diploma of distinction" alongside a class of eight students.
For the next few years, she taught in the city schools, but clearly longed for more. She eventually decided that, like Elizabeth Blackwell before her, she would practice medicine. This was a time in which, as one 1871 newspaper put it, a woman being a doctor was viewed by many as "ludicrous" and "disgusting." One book describing the differences between men and women argued that women didn't have the "physical strength and moral courage required" to be a doctor and were better off as nurses because that instead required patience and endurance.
Regardless, Adella was accepted into the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Later in life, she would recall how women on campus had to remain "modest" and "unobtrusive" in an attempt to keep the peace with male students. "I remember with contempt the loud and boisterous behavior of the 500 men 'medics' when we women (35 in number) entered the lecture room," she wrote.
In a University of Michigan journal published in 2000, it was described how women in the medical program were "unwelcome" during these years. The journal quoted a classmate of Adella's, Emma Call, who explained that of the seven professors in the medical school, only one favored admitting women into the program — although all except one were generally respectful and even inspiring. That one though, according to Adella, was an "antiquated" chemistry professor who viewed women on campus as "monstrosities." Still, the difficulties they faced were less from the faculty and more from male students who "were not accepting and expressed their disapproval loudly, vehemently, and often rudely."
Another classmate, Eliza Mosher, described how the opposition increased her "power of resistance" and "deepened her determination" to become a physician. The adversity also had its advantages. "My acquaintance with men both as professors and students," Mosher explained, "gave me a conception of the workings of men's minds which has been most helpful in my dealings with them in my later life."
Adella was an excellent student despite the antagonism and continued her studies at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. After graduating in 1876, she returned to Erie as the city's first woman physician. The following year, she married Dr. Arthur Woods, a jail physician, future city health inspector, and, eventually, head of the Erie Health Department. They had two children, Bertha and Ethel.
As Dr. Adella Brindle Woods, she built a practice that she would run for the next 35 years. In a 1909 local history, John Miller wrote that she had "an excellent reputation and practice."
She was known for her attention to detail as well as her kindness. She also became one of Erie's most vocal public health advocates and she had a particular interest in disease prevention and was a passionate advocate for improving hygiene. Community bathing pools were opened in the city to promote personal cleanliness.
The Erie County Medical Society describes how she worked "tirelessly" in support of milk pasteurization. Unpasteurized milk was often contaminated and could cause outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid fever and tuberculosis. Such advocacy eventually led to not only pasteurization requirements at the federal level, but also to Erie's Board of Health passing numerous dairy-related ordinances in the early 1900s: yearly herd inspections, cleanliness and sterilization standards (especially in relation to manure removal), ice box requirements, and forbidding the sale of milk with additives such as borax, formaldehyde, and other chemicals.
The doctor also championed medical examinations in Erie's public schools. She promoted immunization for the city's children. In 2019, the Erie Times-News described how Dr. Woods was "instrumental in establishing a central water pumping station and filtration plant to ensure a pure water supply for the city." Previously, Erie's water supply was deeply contaminated with sewage pollution. After efforts to reduce this contamination, chlorination of the city water supply was also introduced in 1911 during a particularly nasty typhoid epidemic.
Her marriage didn't work out and she and Arthur divorced. Meanwhile, Bertha graduated from Erie High School and attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Ethel graduated and attended Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Both daughters eventually found their way back to Erie.
Around this time, Adella and another woman ran for school board director, both the first women in their wards to do so. While they both lost, Adella made what was described in the newspaper as a "surprising run," losing by only 91 votes. "[T]he ungallant, unyielding man who scoffed at the idea of petticoat influence ... must awake to the fact that there is a majority opinion extant in favor of giving women a voice and a vote in the management of the public schools," the Erie Daily Times editorialized, adding that she had proven wrong those who had viewed her candidacy as a joke.
In 1915, the catastrophic Mill Creek flood ravaged Erie, destroying over 250 homes and killing at least 36 people. Adella helped organize and lead the Flood Relief Committee, which provided food, coffee, shelter, and necessities to those affected. A few years later, during the deadly influenza epidemic that killed over 500 city residents, her knowledge of communicable diseases assisted greatly.
Like her grandfather had been in Springfield, she was extremely active in the community, traveling around the city with her horse and buggy. She was a member of the Erie County Medical Society. She became president of the local Women's Club, which boasted 200 members. She advocated for expanding voting rights with the Northwestern Pennsylvania Suffrage Association. She frequently gave lectures around the city.
As she became older, she traveled often. She visited New York City. On her way to Toronto, she marveled at Niagara Falls, describing its "ceaseless roar" as "an emblem of eternity" that reminded her of "the insignificance of one's own self." She took a trip through New Orleans and then onward through the west and north along the Pacific Coast in California. She traveled to Egypt, traversed the Nile River, and saw the pyramids. She took another trip to Panama where she witnessed the construction of the canal. She credited the lifesaving measures of medical professionals who spread awareness about the dangers of diseases spread by mosquitoes and noted how workers, aware of the dangers, now "walk[ed] the narrow path of hygienic righteousness."
When the First World War began, she and many Erie women came out against it. At the Masonic Hall in 1915, the Woman's Club of Erie held a conference, in which the speaker made a "vigorous appeal" for peace and the "destruction of militarism." The doctor helped establish the Erie chapter of the Woman's Peace Party, a pacifist organization with prominent members such as Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, and Florence Kelly. The group used public demonstrations as a direct action strategy. In Erie, events were held throughout town to explain the "horrors of war." Adella herself addressed audiences on the "terrible cost" of war on not just society then, but how it would negatively affect the "coming generation."
Yet, as the war waged on and the United States joined the conflict, she had a change of heart. The Women's Peace Party fractured and some continued embracing pacifism and hopes for a peaceful resolution. Others, such as Adella, became more hawkish and worked to raise funds for the war effort. While her beliefs are not entirely known, by 1917, she seemed sure that a peaceful resolution was not possible and the U.S. and its allies had to win the war. She joined the Liberty Loans Committee and began assisting in the sale of Liberty Bonds and thrift stamps.
She publicly scolded those still embracing pacifism as well as those sympathetic to Germany. "[T]here is no place in America for a pacifist," she warned, "and when our boys begin to come home maimed, we will not deal gently with those who have pro-German tendencies."
She began receiving letters after giving a speech at the Women's Club in support of Liberty Bonds. "These people only half read the papers and only understand in a small degree what they are trying to criticize," she told the Erie Daily Times, shrugging her critics. Some letters were threatening. Others stated that she should leave the country and that she didn't know right from wrong. Another said that her pro-war views would lead to civil war or even revolution.
"The first was the most threatening of any, but they all surprise and amuse more than frighten me," she told the Erie Daily Times. "I thought my speech at the Women's Club was quite mild."
Following the war, she continued advocating for educational opportunities for women. A scholarship fund was also set up in her name, meant to "assist young women in obtaining a college education." She also promoted women running for office. She helped organize events promoting women running for Congress. In 1924, she presided over an event for the National Women's Party, the organization of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, at the Hotel Lawrence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright Zona Gale spoke, where she said now that women had the right to vote, government should no longer be a means for exploitation and special privilege, but provide "an opportunity for the growth of the human being." Adella spoke at the event as well, giving a speech saying that the Women's Party welcomed people of all political parties who "believe in equal rights and that well qualified women should be in congress as well as men." The Erie Daily Times described her as having "a fine sense of justice mingled with shrewd wit."
In the autumn of 1929, Adella became sick and over the following months her health declined. That January, at age 78, she died at her home at 121 W. Ninth Street. In a tribute, the Michigan Alumnus noted that she had "realized her lifelong dream of studying to become a doctor."
"A firm believer in women, she desired for them equality with men in all respects," the Erie Daily Times wrote in 1930, adding that she had been "one of the city's most widely known and highly esteemed residents."
The following year, the Woman's Club of Erie selected from 120 nominations their inaugural twelve "Greatest Women." Adella was selected alongside Sarah Reed, Mother Ambrosia Powers, Mrs. Peter Cauley, Jane Pressly, Jennie R. Cleveland, Carrie T. Watson, Lovisa Card Catlin, Angelina Kilbourne, Bertha Kunz-Baker, Laura G. Sanford, and Jean A. Hard.
She was selected, they wrote, for being a "pioneer" in medicine as well as for her philanthropy. Dr. Adella Brindle Woods was someone who "in her quiet way, reached into the heart of her community, and befriending one, and helping another, won the everlasting tribute of a people."
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. He can be reached at email@example.com.