Boston University Alumni Medical Directory, gift of Dr. James S. Brust
A pioneering doctor and champion of physical activity for women, New Bedford’s Helen Worthing Webster (1837-1904) graduated from New England Female Medical College in Boston as a Doctor of Medicine. After seven years as Resident Physician and Professor of Physiology and Hygiene at Vassar College, Helen returned to New Bedford to practice medicine at 111 Fourth Street (now Purchase Street). She was a member of the New Bedford School Committee and the New Bedford Medical Society.
An early pioneering doctor and a champion of physical activity for women, Helen Worthing Webster (1837-1904) was born in Boston in 1837. The daughter of Reverend Amos Worthing, a soap maker, and Laura Jacobs Worthing, Helen grew up in New Bedford. As a young woman, Helen started out as a music teacher, but then enrolled in the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC) in Boston. NEFMC, founded by Samuel Gregory in 1848 with a focus on midwifery, was the first medical school exclusively for women. At the age of 25 Helen took her place in the ranks of the first female doctors in America when she graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1862.
After graduation Dr. Helen Worthing moved to Washington, D.C. where she served as a doctor in the Union Army. While there, she met and married Dr. William Webster. Helen and William had one daughter, Laura. Following her war service Helen was appointed Assistant Physician at Boston’s New England Hospital for Women and Children. Soon thereafter she moved back to New Bedford where she set up a private practice. Helen maintained the practice for the rest of her life except for a singular seven-year period.
In 1874 an unusual opportunity came Helen’s way: she was appointed Resident Physician and Professor of Physiology and Hygiene at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The college announced, “Helen W. Webster is a thoroughly educated and experienced physician. She served in the army hospitals during the late war and has since had a large and successful practice in New Bedford, Mass. The college may be congratulated upon the acquisition of one who, both by education and experience, seems eminently fitted for the duties of resident physician.” Helen prepared for this appointment by studying in hospitals in Paris and Dublin.
Over the years as women started attending college, there was much debate on not only whether women had the intellectual ability to handle higher education, but also whether such an education would destroy their health, in particular their ability to bear children. In turn, society questioned whether it was safe for women to participate in physical education and on sports teams. Helen’s predecessor, Dr. Alida Avery, one of the first nine members of the Vassar College faculty when it was founded in 1865, had actually conducted a study of the students’ health which showed that their health had improved during their years at Vassar.
In her time at Vassar, Helen took a stand, which ultimately earned her a bit of fame in early baseball history. She is actually mentioned in the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. In its first years Vassar had organized two baseball teams which Helen ended up supporting. The story, told by one of the students, goes as follows: “One day a student, while running between bases, fell with an injured leg. We attended her to the infirmary, with the foreboding that this accident would end our play of baseball . . . Dr. Webster said that the public doubtless would condemn the game as too violent, but if that student had hurt herself while dancing, the public would not condemn dancing to extinction.” Dancing and baseball: two worthwhile activities for women, albeit each with a bit of a risk.
In 1881 Helen returned to New Bedford where she practiced medicine for the rest of her life. She was a member of the New Bedford School Committee and the New Bedford Medical Society. She died in New Bedford in 1904 and is buried in Rural Cemetery as is her daughter Laura.
Mary Howland Smoyer
Brust, Dr. James S. The New England Female Medical College/Vassar College Connection: Alida Avery and Helen Worthing Webster. ACESO, Journal of the Boston University School of Medicine Historical Society, Fall, 2015, and personal communication with Dr. Brust.
Dibble, Katherine. Personal communication and research.
Gardner, Martha N. Midwife, Doctor, or Doctress? The New England Female Medical College and Women’s Place in Nineteenth-Century Medicine and Society. Brandeis U, 2002.