Women and Children First

The Trailblazing Life of Susan Dimock, M.D.


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About the Book

In 19th-century America, it was assumed that woman patients would be treated by male doctors. The idea of a “woman doctor” was deemed by many to lie somewhere between unfathomable and repugnant. Then along came Susan Dimock. A young North Carolinian who dreamed of becoming a physician, and grew up to practice medicine in Boston, Dimock was not the first American woman to battle the patriarchal medical establishment. But in the 1870s, she was arguably the best-educated, most-skilled woman surgeon in the nation as well as living proof that a woman could be competent, smart, lovely, and kind—all in the same package.

Dimock’s life reads like an adventure story, from recoiling at slave auctions and witnessing Civil War battles to escaping her fire-engulfed Southern hometown, then finding her place among Boston’s most enterprising women. She studied medicine in Zurich and Vienna, hiked the Swiss Alps, executed complex surgeries, and trained America’s first professional nurses, ultimately inspiring a new generation of female surgeons. It is no surprise that a prestigious Viennese medical professor, when asked for advice to aspiring young doctors, replied simply, “Make yourself to be like Miss Dimock.” This biography is the first to give Susan Dimock her rightful place in medical, women’s, and world history.

About the Author(s)

Susan Wilson is the official House Historian of the Omni Parker House in Boston, an Affiliate Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center of Brandeis University, and an Honorary Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Bibliographic Details

Susan Wilson

Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 257
Bibliographic Info:  47 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2023
pISBN: 978-1-4766-9248-7
eISBN: 978-1-4766-5046-3
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Preface 1
Introduction 3
1. Early Years 5
2. Transitions 28
3. Medical Training 63
4. Medical Practice 109
5. Death and Legacy 152
Chapter Notes 195
Bibliography 223
Index 232

Book Reviews & Awards

  • “With impeccable scholarship and graceful prose, author Susan Wilson has chronicled the life of Dr. Susan Dimock–her skill and intelligence, her prodigious accomplishments, her kindness and passionate dedication to the people she served. With love and literary panache, Wilson has brought the brilliant young Boston surgeon up out of the waves to life again, in all her luminous beauty of soul.”—Diana Rowan Rockefeller, trustee, Authors Guild Foundation
  • “Reading Susan Wilson’s biography of Susan Dimock is like taking a master class in writing a compelling biography. Dr. Dimock managed to pack so much into her 28 years of life that one longs for a different conclusion and more years of productivity. I loved this book. And at the end, I wept.”—Jane A Petro, MD, FACS, FAACS
  • “Susan Wilson’s Women and Children First offers a fresh perspective on post-Civil War Boston, and the ambitions of women in medical learning and practice. Her beautifully rendered portrait of Susan Dimock’s ever-so-brief life brings us to the streets of 19th century Boston and Zurich and reveals the young doctor’s struggles and achievements that touched so many and set off a firestorm of change in the halls of modern medicine.”—Kathy Kottaridis, executive director, Historic Boston Incorporated
  • “Susan Wilson’s book is a wonderfully readable account of one of the first women surgeons in the United States. Ms. Wilson’s descriptions of the difficulties women faced in qualifying as doctors in the 19th century and in practicing with dignity and independence will resonate with readers interested in the stories of pioneering women. As a physician who has worked for several decades at the Dimock Center, it was wonderful to learn the stories behind the old plaques and buildings of this campus and be reminded of its amazing history.”—Nandini Sengupta, MD, MPH Chief Medical Officer, The Dimock Center
  • “At last, a biography of Dr. Susan Dimock! Wilson has unearthed an impressive trove of documents to tell the story of Dimock’s life, from her roots in North Carolina to her work as a skilled surgeon and organizer of America’s first professional nurses training program at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston. Thanks to Wilson, Dimock now takes her proper place among the pantheon of pioneer women doctors in America.”—Virginia G. Drachman, Ph. D., author, Hospital with a Heart: The Paradox of Separatism at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, 1862-1969
  • Women and Children First is a must read for anyone seeking to become victorious over the challenges to their dreams and destiny. Dr. Dimock overcame obstacles to become a true leader, a standard bearer and a pioneer for women entering the field of medicine. Her legacy of courage can inspire us all to kick open the doors of anything that acts as an obstacle to our destiny. Her journey, a true ‘profile in courage,’ shows us how to do just that.”—Leesa Jones, co-founder and curator, Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.