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Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Winter 1993/1994 (Vol. 41, No. 4; incorrectly labeled Vol. 43, No. 4), p. 60-62


A Lesser-known Daughter of Nantucket: Lydia
By Alice Dixon

A sixth-generation descendant of Peter Folger (1618-1690), Lydia Folger was born in Nantucket on May 5, 1822, the daughter of Gideon and Eunice Macy Folger. Lucretia Coffin Mott and Maria Mitchell were her cousins. Benjamin Franklin and Walter Folger, Jr., were included in her family line; educators, scientists, reformers, inventors - all contributors to humanity with their diversity and talents.

When she was awarded her M.D. degree from Central Medical College of New York on June 5, 1850, this daughter of Nantucket became only the second woman to earn a medical degree in this country and the first American-born woman to do so. (Elizabeth Blackwell, who was born in England, received her M.D. a year earlier.)

Lydia grew up on Nantucket and was educated in the local schools. One of her teachers was William Mitchell, her uncle and Maria's father. Following her island schooling she attended Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, in 1838 and later taught there from 1842 to 1844.

That Lydia loved Nantucket, the place, its people, and never forgot the importance of her roots is manifest in these stanzas from her poem My Island Home, which appeared in Heart Melodies, a book of poetry published in 1870.

"For every island child can learn
to write, and spell, and read
Without expense in public schools
that are good schools indeed.
In literary attainments
that island of the sea
Is the Athens of the region,
long may it ever be.
Its sons and daughters may depart
and travel o'er the earth
Their Island Home they'll not forget,
the isle that gave them birth.
As the native soil is fertile
in which the acorn lies,
So will grow the umbrageous oak
with branches to the skies.
As is the earliest bias
that the young child receives,
So will an influence be given
that never, never leaves
That child: where'er his destiny
may send him forth to roam
His heart will ever bear the seal
stamped at his childhood's home.
If I have led a useful life,
and good to others done,
If I have lived with noble aims,
the motive power has come
From strong impress I received
at my dear island home
Before I ever ventured forth
in the wide world to roam.
As children think with gratitude
of mothers very kind
Who hold them by the cords of love
which they know how to bind,
So of that isle I love to think,
that isle beyond the sea,
For the memory of that isle
is very dear to me."

In September of 1844 Lydia married Lorenzo Niles Fowler, of New York City, in Nantucket. Fowler was a noted phrenologist of the day. The "science" of phrenology, the study of the relationship of the shape of the cranium to intellect and personality, was an antecedent of modern psychology and the subject of widespread interest at that time. Tradition has it that, on Lydia's wedding day, her uncle, Walter Folger, Jr., had Fowler "read" the bumps on his head. Folger was declared to be a man possessed of an ego almost as great as his genius.

Lorenzo Niles Fowler became one of the most positive influences in Lydia's life. Their letters and journals reveal that they were a loving, compatible couple, working side by side in an arena of mutual respect and devotion to their professions.

Jessie Allen Fowler was born sixteen years after Lydia and Lorenzo were married. She was born in New York and died there in 1932. She studied in London and, in 1901, graduated from New York University's Women's Law Class. She never married, and dedicated her life to carrying on her father's work in phrenology. Lydia's other two daughters, Amelia and Lydia, died young. One of Lydia's most poignant poems is on the death of Amelia.

Lydia was a woman ahead of her time. Long before she received her degree in medicine she was known and respected as a lecturer and writer on anatomy, hygiene, and physiology. She was full of energy and traveled extensively with her husband to address large audiences of women waiting to learn about hygiene and the care of children. Those were the days when bathing was not a regular part of daily living and most people were unaware of the benefits of soap and water in the prevention of disease and the promotion of good health and vitality.

In 1847 the publishing house of Fowler and Wells released two books written by Lydia for young readers, Familiar Lessons on Physiology and Familiar Lessons on Phrenology. These volumes were reprinted several times, as was her 1848 book Familiar Lessons on Astronomy.

As her influence and reputation increased, Lydia wished to attend medical school, but there were none open to women at that time. There was a beam of light when Elizabeth Blackwell was graduated from Geneva (N. Y.) Medical College in 1849, but the publicity generated by this controversial event caused the college to reject other female students. Lydia's cousin, Lucretia Coffin Mott, became her confidante and assisted Lydia in her quest to enter medical school.

A group of upstate New York medical men, characterized as "eclectics," organized the Central Medical College of New York in Syracuse. This first chartered medical school to offer coeducation opened its doors to one hundred students on November 5, 1849. Lydia was one of the eight women enrolled. Among her fellow students were Myra King Merrick, cofounder of the Homeopathic Hospital and Medical College for Women, in Cleveland, Ohio, and Sarah Adamson Dolley, who was later elected to the Rochester Academy of Science.

Because the college caused some controversy in Syracuse, it was moved to Rochester, where it was known as the Rochester Eclectic Medical College.

Following her graduation, Lydia opened an office on Broadway in New York City and practiced medicine there from 1852 until 1860. During this period she also devoted much of her time and energy to teaching women at Metropolitan College. Her classes were not held during the regular term, and she was not on staff, but volunteered her services.

In 1860 she traveled to Europe in the company of Reverend Doctor J. P. Newman, who later was appointed minister to President Grant and his Cabinet, and Mrs. Newman. In England, Lydia addressed audiences of women, and her lectures on physiology were very well received. Following a visit to Italy, she spent the winter of 1860 - 61 studying medicine in Paris.

Lydia's father, Gideon Folger, refers to her studies there in a January 1, 1861, letter from Nantucket to his granddaughter, Eunice Macy Folger, who was living in New Orleans.

Returning to England, Lydia took charge of all obstetric cases in London's Marylebone Road Hospital and later rejoined her husband to lecture throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. Her lectures were published in a volume entitled Pet of the Household, a guide for parents on the physical and mental rearing of children.

A second book, Woman and Her Destiny, sold extensively. Lydia's insights were bold for her day, as the following paragraph from that book illustrates:

"No human being should be so dependent upon another that the termination of the life of one should terminate the sustenance necessary to the life of the other, unless it be in the case of children and parents; for God has given to every thinking human being some gift or power that can be developed for his or her own benefit and for the good of society."

Elsewhere in Woman and Her Destiny Lydia quotes Horace Mann and describes him as one who devoted his life to promote the education of the people.

In her lectures to women Lydia praised their roles as mothers of the human race while, at the same time, asking them to think about the other years of their lives, those not set aside for child bearing and rearing. An educated mother, she said, makes the best mother. She constantly taught that it is the responsibility of individuals to study, practice, and perfect the very best that is within them, mothers especially owing to themselves and their children to be more than merely caretakers. There was more, she maintained, to child rearing than a clean, physically healthy youngster. The child's mental and emotional well-being are of utmost importance as well. These tenets are universally accepted today, but were new ideas at the time Lydia promulgated them.

This excerpt from her collected lectures provides insight into Lydia's philosophy, and remains totally relevant today:

"It does seem as if some parents look upon their children merely as objects on which to gratify their combativeness and destructiveness. Poor little children! How many would have been born had they been consulted in the matter? Not a tithe, I trow. If ignorance did not result in evil it would not matter, but frequently both mother and child suffer in consequence."

Another example of the timeless nature of Lydia's teachings are these comments on marriage, ideas readily understood by today's woman:

"There are many women who do not marry and who do not bear children. There are others who marry but are childless. Both of these are exceptional cases, for nearly every single woman would marry, provided she could find a congenial companion suited to her. Those who do not, show their wisdom by remaining single instead of marrying without being mated. Life is full of romance, and the more real it is, the more romantic it is."

Lydia's style of delivery was said to move one to tears or to laughter through her colorful descriptions and her earnestness. Her organizational skills blended with her determination and "girlish charm" to give her a unique and compelling character.

The Fowlers moved to London in 1863, to reside in their home at 62 St. Augustine's Road, Camden Square, for the rest of their lives.

They opened an office on Fleet Street where Lorenzo continued to practice phrenology assisted by Lydia, who continued her career in lecturing and writing. She was active in the affairs of the British Women's Temperance Society, and gave generously of her time as secretary of that organization. Her drive to study, inquire, investigate, and originate never waned. Without apparent fatigue she would write for hours on end without neglecting her responsibilities and duties as a wife and mother. Lydia's physical stamina was attributable to her approach to the importance of exercise in combination with good common sense health practices. She believed that one's whole being - body, mind, and spirit - should work together to attain a full and happy life.

The long months of hard work during this period were, from time to time, interrupted for travel. Lydia made several trips to the Continent and to the East, visiting, among other places, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine. In Rome she ascended to the top of St. Peter's; in Naples, scaled Vesuvius to peer into the volcano's seething crater; and climbed to the summit of the great pyramid at Cairo. Lydia persisted in putting into practice the principles of active participation in life which marked her whole approach to living.

In 1870 both Lydia Folger Fowler and Elizabeth Blackwell were living and working in London. Dr. Blackwell was practicing medicine and Lydia was serving poor women in the slums of England and Ireland. During these busy days she delivered babies, taught and lectured, and wrote with tireless effort. She devoted countless hours to promoting the regular bathing of infants to prevent disease and to provide a sense of comfort and well being.

Before she died, Lydia estimated that she had lectured to and taught nearly a quarter of a million American and European women.

For thirty years she devoted her time, her vision, and her energy to the service and advancement of her fellow human beings. Not all of her many contributions were directly attributed to her. Some of the works published under her husband's name are composed in her characteristically direct and simple style, in sharp contrast to his usual florid and overstated prose.

While she was working with the poor and needy women and children of the slums Lydia contracted blood poisoning. Her vital organs gradually surrendered to this pernicious contamination and, after an illness that lasted nine weeks, this extraordinary women died of pleuropneumonia on January 26, 1879, in her home at Camden Square.

During her final days Lydia's only concerns were for her family and for the work she had to leave behind. In a November 28,1878, letter to her sister Lydia wrote:

"We lay our plans, but, alas! We often find that they have not been well-laid, and we are in the hands of One who can upset them completely."

Family and friends gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of their beloved Lydia on the 30th of January, 1879. She was buried in Plot 23701 at London's Highgate Cemetery.

In 1937 the National Education Association hosted a meeting focusing on the work of Horace Mann. It was stated then that Lydia Folger Fowler, her daughter Jessie Allen Fowler, and her sister in law Charlotte Wells Fowler did more than anyone else to further Mann's "true science of the mind."

Lydia Folger Fowler, through her personal contact, touched the lives of more people than did any of the other woman doctors of her time. A most outstanding individual, this extraordinary woman has, until now, been overlooked by history and virtually forgotten.

Perhaps the essence of her life of service is best exemplified in her own words:

"The world is a beehive, full of human-workers. If human beings would imitate the example of "the little busy bee," have their eyes on the great ends and aims of life, and bring the perfume of loving hearts to their daily toil - there would be less physical and mental misery; great and good results would be accomplished; the world would make rapid strides in the progression of all that is beneficial to humanity; the arts and sciences would be more extensively promulgated, and happiness more universally diffused. Let no woman be a drone in the hive, but remember the words of Romney Leigh to Aurora:- "The world waits for help, beloved; let us love so well our work shall still be better for our love, and still our love be sweeter for our work, and both commended for the sake of each by all true workers and true lovers born."

Written more than a century ago, these words by this daughter of Nantucket are as profoundly compelling today as they were when the ink with which they were penned was still wet.

Although outshone by her more famous cousins, Lydia Folger Fowler is truly another bright star in the constellation of brillant Nantucket women who made important and lasting contributions to the world in which we live.