Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Rachel Brooks Gleason, pioneer in women's healthcare

New York State is known for pioneering women who championed the cause of women's suffrage, women's education, and women's rights. Seneca Falls is to this day a pilgrimage for students of civil rights, for the groundbreaking work of Susan B Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and is considered the birthplace of women's rights. But a few decades earlier and in the same town as the first college to offer a baccalaureate degree to women equal to that offered to men, another pioneer for women took center stage. 

Rachel Brooks Gleason holds the distinction of being only the fourth woman in United States history to practice medicine. Born in Vermont in 1820, she later settled in New York and married Silas O. Gleason in 1844. This was during the period prior to Elmira Female College and women's colleges in general. Determined and resourceful, she studied her husband's medical texts at home, attaining enough of an academic background that she prepared herself for entry. Dr. Silas Gleason served as a professor at Central Medical College in Rochester, and through his influence she ultimately prevailed and won acceptance to the institute, graduating with a medical degree in 1851. This not only opened the doors to her, but also to other female students after her.

The Gleasons began their joint medical practice in the innovative movement of hydropathy, or hydrotherapy, a Victorian philosophy of healing arts that contended water held curative powers. They adopted the European model of water cure health resorts, founding one first in western New York, and ultimately settling at another they founded in Elmira, New York, in 1852. The dynamic couple served the Elmira Water Cure for forty years, building renown and attracting prestigious guests such as the aforementioned suffragettes, as well as a former Vice President of the Unites States, Schyler Colfax, Harriett Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame, and several of Brigham Young's children. 

Rachel's pioneering for women's health concerns cannot be overstated. She was one of the first to insist that women were more effectively treated by other women, who naturally understood their needs better. Heretofore, many genuine, physical ailments were dismissed by male practitioners as "hysterics" or attributed to emotional strain. Rachel also embraced her role as educator, conducting health discussions from town to town and house to house in what she referred to as "parlor talks." She was widely received to lecture and also enjoyed success as the author of prolific pamphlets and books on women's health. She and her husband were ardently prolife. She required loose garments at the Water Cure for her female patients, believing that the restrictive clothing of the period caused many common maladies. Daily bathing was a requirement at the Cure, and short hair styles given for faster drying times. Caffeinated drinks, alcohol and tobacco were forbidden, while "taking the waters" through ingestion, immersion, and even mists and sprays was emphasized. 

Rachel Gleason was a mother of two, and a mentor to dozens of young women, eighteen of whom achieved an education in medicine because of her encouragement and financial support. She and her husband were influential in choosing Elmira as the location for the first female college. She was an ardent champion of the freedman, the invalid, and was ahead of her time on women's hygiene, diet and exercise. A progressive thinker in all of the noble ways of the 19th century reforms, she was also a woman of deep and profound faith, holding weekly bible studies for over twenty years.

One endorsement, from a world famous literary figure of the day who coincidentally lived and married in the same town, sums up who Rachel Gleason was, both professionally and personally. Samuel Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain, married into a prominent Elmira family, the Langdons.  Rachel delivered all four of Twain's children. Though his famed wit was known to poke fun at the philosophy of hydropathy, for Rachel he had nothing but praise and confidence. She traveled to Buffalo, NY to attend Olivia Langdon Clemens after the birth of Twain's son, and legend has it that he threatened to prevent Dr. Rachel from leaving when she naturally had to return to Elmira after several days. His affectionate name for her is fitting. "The almost divine Mrs. Gleason."

Kathleen Maher is a 21st Century girl with an old soul. She has a novella coming out in 2018 with Barbour's collection Victorian Christmas Brides. Her debut novella Bachelor Buttons, released in 2013 through Helping Hands Press, incorporates both her Irish heritage and love of Civil War history. She won the ACFW Genesis Contest for unpublished writers, historical category, in 2012. Kathleen and her husband share an old farmhouse in upstate NY with their children and a small zoo of rescued animals.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Linda. Rachel Gleason was truly ahead of her time.

  2. Fascinating--what an amazing woman! I'd never heard of Rachel Gleason. Thanks for sharing with us, Kathleen!

    1. Thanks, Kiersti. That is what’s so great about sharing local history – – so many gems get lost unless we unearth them.

  3. Informative post. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Very interesting! Thank you for highlighting this amazing woman!

  5. Thanks for coming by Connie. She was remarkable

  6. I've never heard of her, but she sounds like an amazing woman. I admire all women who have trail-blazed for women in medicine. Thanks for the interesting article.

  7. I loved learning about Rachel. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hey, Connie. Thank you for commenting.