Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Elizabeth Martha Cushier, MD

By Arlene Shaner, Historical Collections Librarian

Academy Fellows lead by serving, now during the COVID-19 crisis as in the past. This is the fifth entry in our series on early women NYAM Fellows and their contributions to society; for earlier posts, see Sara Josephine BakerMartha WollsteinDaisy Maude Orleman Robinson, and Sarah McNutt. Please also see our biographical sketch of Mary Putnam Jacobi, the first female Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine.

When Elizabeth Cushier (1837–1931) was elected a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1889, she was only the third woman to be invited into the Academy, joining two of her colleagues from the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Sarah McNutt.

Cushier was born in Jamaica, New York, on November 25, 1837, a daughter of John Henry and Martha Lumley Cushier. She was the sixth of eleven children, but three of her older siblings had died before she was born; five other younger siblings followed. In her autobiography, published as an appendix to Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead’s Medical Women of America, Cushier said this about her childhood: “We were brought up in the strictest economy, as my father’s income was a very limited one, but we were, as I remember, a happy, healthy lot, quite enterprising and consequently often trying.”[i] When she was sixteen, the family moved to Little Falls, New Jersey. Cushier quickly became friendly with the Hinton family, who had also relocated from New York, and forged a life-long friendship with Ione Hinton. The family’s wide-ranging intellectual interests, along with their support of abolitionism and women’s suffrage, resonated with her and encouraged her independent spirit.

After her mother died in 1859, Cushier took on much of the household responsibility, caring for her father and her four living younger siblings. His remarriage a year later freed her to go to New York, where she got a position singing with a church choir and gave private voice lessons. In the summer of 1868, she happened to read a medical article that sparked her interest, and she enrolled in the homeopathic New York Medical College for Women before transferring a year later to Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell’s Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, graduating in 1872.

Cushier’s 1872 graduation noted in the Annual Announcement of the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, noting her thesis topic as “Endometritis.” Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (N.Y.). Annual catalogue and announcement. New York: S. Angell, 1871.

Cushier stayed on at the Infirmary, beginning as an intern before becoming a resident physician. Her practice was devoted to obstetrics and gynecology, but an interest in normal and pathological histology led to eighteen months of study in Zurich with a Professor Ebert, who offered her laboratory opportunities that were not yet available to women in the United States. Laboratory research, pathological and post-mortem study, lectures, and bedside clinics all enriched her knowledge before she returned to New York.

The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary on Stuvvesant Square. Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary (N.Y.). Annual catalogue and announcement. New York: M.J. Rooney, 1891.

On her return, Cushier went right back to the Infirmary, and worked to expand the practice of gynecological surgery there. Thomas Addis Emmet and T. Gaillard Thomas, who were on the staff at the Woman’s Hospital (and both of whom were NYAM Fellows), allowed her to attend clinics there, and the Infirmary, in its larger home on Stuyvesant Square, eventually added a modern operating room for both gynecological and abdominal surgeries. As her work at the Infirmary and her private practice continued to grow, she published articles and case studies, mainly about gynecological and obstetrical subjects.[ii]

In 1882, Cushier’s personal life changed significantly when she and Emily Blackwell (1826–1910) began to live together in Blackwell’s home on East 20th Street. Cushier and Blackwell also bought a summer home, Seawold, near York Cliffs, Maine, in 1893. After the Woman’s Medical College closed its doors in 1899, both women retired from practice and headed to Europe, where they spent eighteen months. On their return, they gave up their city home, moving to Montclair, New Jersey, where Cushier’s niece, Dr. Emily Mercelis, also lived. When Blackwell died in September 1910, just a few months after her older sister Elizabeth (1821–1910) died in England, Cushier called the moment “an irreparable break in my life.”[iii]

Elizabeth Cushier and Emily Blackwell’s home in Montclair, NJ. Photograph by Elisa Rolle, originally published in her Queer Places: Retracing the Steps of LGBTQ People around the World. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

Cushier lived for another 20 years, going to Maine in the summers and living in Montclair for the rest of the year. No longer engaged in the practice of medicine, she felt her days were not useful, until the First World War brought the opportunity to do relief work for French and Belgian women and children and for servicemen through the Red Cross. She died on November 25, 1931, her 94th birthday, and is buried, alongside her parents, in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Notes

[i] Kate Campbell Hurd-Mead, MD. Medical Women of America: A short history of the pioneer medical women of America and a few of their colleagues in England. Froben Press; 1933: 85.

[ii] A full list of Cushier’s publications can be found in Creese, Mary RS. Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800–1900: a survey of their contributions to research. Scarecrow Press, 2000: 392.

[iii] Hurd-Mead. Medical Women of America, 92.

Beard Dipping: New York Medicine 1900 Style

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

After episode one of The Knick, the question on everyone’s lips is of course: what was going on with the beard dipping? A commitment to getting the historical details right is the answer (although we hope for the actor’s sake the liquid wasn’t completely true to life).

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Courtsey of HBO-Cinemax.

Dr. Christiansen (Matt Frewer) preps his beard for surgery, assisted by Nurse Elkins (Eve Hewson). Credit: HBO-Cinemax.

The surgeons performing the emergency Caesarean early in the episode ran an operating theater following Listerian principles of cleanliness and antiseptic surgery. Joseph Lister (1827–1912) was a professor of surgery at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, who, influenced by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, looked for methods to remove microorganisms from the environment during surgery. The introduction of chloroform and ether as anesthetic agents in the mid-19th century meant that surgery had become a much less painful process for patients (and allowed surgeons to focus on longer and more complex procedures). However, surgery remained dangerous, with postoperative infection continuing to be a serious, often fatal, problem.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-18. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

Carbolic steam spray used by Joseph Lister, England, 1866-1870. Courtesy of the Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images.

In 1867, Lister published an article in which he proposed using carbolic acid (already used to treat sewage) to sterilize the operating room, surgical instruments, bandages, and wounds. Surgeons were encouraged to dip their hands—and yes, their beards!—into carbolic acid before operating.

Working in the midst of a pungent yellow spray that smelled like tar was not ideal and inhaling too much carbolic acid could be dangerous. Lister continued experimenting throughout his career with new sterilization techniques. However he never embraced the idea of gowns, face masks, or gloves.

The use of gloves in surgery was introduced by William Stewart Halsted (on whom Clive Owen’s character Dr. Thackery is based) in the 1890s. A pioneer of antiseptic surgery, one of his surgical nurses (whom he later married) had a bad reaction to the mercuric chloride used as a disinfectant, so he commissioned Goodyear rubber to make her some gloves. The early use of gloves in surgery was not about patient safety, but protecting the medical team. Like any new innovation, reactions were mixed. Some individuals embraced the idea of gloves, while others continued to operate bare-knuckled.

We’re looking forward to the next episode. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions about what’s going on in the hospital and we will get back to you in a future post.