Embracing A New Path: Annie Lowrie Alexander And The Practice Of Medicine
For the final installment of this month’s series, “Her Voice: Revolutionary North Carolina Women,” we go back to the 19th Century, to a town just outside of Charlotte and a time before women had the right to vote.
Here we find Annie Lowrie Alexander, who would become the first licensed female medical doctor in the South. WFDD’s Bethany Chafin spoke with author and filmmaker Anna Fields about how Alexander became a pioneer in medicine.
On the beginning of Alexander's career in medicine:
Annie's father was a doctor during the Civil War, and he had a female patient who was so embarrassed during this time period to be examined by a male doctor that she refused medical treatment, and she subsequently died. So her [Alexander's] father decided that his daughter would go into medicine to maybe help rectify this issue. To his credit, he felt that there was a terrible choice to be made. 'Shall I allow female patients to die out of their embarrassment, or shall I put a female into my doctor's position and remove that embarrassment and thereby save their lives?' So, clearly that was a noble position to take and one that was extremely novel for his generation, in the time period, to have to push his daughter to become a doctor. He benefitted a lot of people. But I wonder how much say in the matter Annie actually had.
On where Alexander did her medical studies:
At first her father hired a tutor and then supplemented that education with his own mini medical lessons. And then at the age of only 17 she went to the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia. She graduated there with honors in 1884 actually, and moved to Baltimore where she spent another full year teaching anatomy and interning while she was studying for her medical license. She then passed the licensing exam in Maryland. She had the highest grade in the class of 100 students of which she was the only woman.
On Alexander's medical practice once she returned to Charlotte:
Once she took the North Carolina medical exams and passed, she became the first female doctor in the entire South. So, pretty amazing. In Charlotte there was only one hospital. And so Annie remodeled her home so that she could see patients there as well. I'm sure there were many more patients than there were hospital beds, so she remodeled the first floor of her home into essentially a hospital ward, and she would see patients actually in the rooms above. She did slowly build up her practice. She was making rounds for the people who truly could not come to her home. She would make house calls on her horse-drawn buggy...until she finally purchased an automobile in 1911. This of course was Ford's Model T.
On Alexander's caseload and the health issues she was passionate about:
I'm sure to fill a need, a very stark...need, and to differentiate her practice, to build her practice, her caseload was largely based around gynecology, obstetrics, as well as early childhood diseases. She did treat a wide variety of these illnesses, and in fact, when she became the president of the county medical society, she spearheaded this entire campaign against hookworm, which was hugely prevalent in the South at the time and especially infected, unfortunately, children. She also later on grappled with this huge flu pandemic that swept across the South in 1918.
Also there were pandemics involving malaria and typhoid as a result of the end of World War I. So she started off in gynecology, then worked into helping children and then eventually when she gained her prominent position as president of the medical society, she was able to spearhead entire campaigns branching out into what had formerly been territory entirely designated to male doctors.