Female Physicians in Antebellum New York City

Nicholas L. Syrett
Cartoon of Madame Restell and Mrs. Bird accompanied by a skeleton.

Cartoon of Madame Restell (center) and Mrs. Bird (far right), Dixon’s Polyanthos, Apr. 3, 1841, p. 97. Each figure in the cartoon is accompanied by a stanza of poetry that linked them with death via abortion, including the three fetuses at far left: “We three ne’er saw the lovely earth/We three ne’er knew a living birth/But killed by powders in the womb/The river served us for a tomb.” Courtesy of: the New York Public Library.

In New York City newspapers in the 1840s and ʼ50s, reporters regularly decried the “female abortionist” who terminated pregnancies for the “base lucre” that it brought them, the “wretched creature who builds her fortune upon the misfortunes of her sex, caring no more for their sufferings of mind or body than does the butcher for the lives of the animals which it is his business to take.” In journals and at conferences, doctors affiliated with the American Medical Association influenced state legislatures to criminalize abortion in the 1850s and 1860s partially through their depictions of abortion providers as unskilled mercenaries who were driven by their lust for riches. Over and over again, critics of abortion—in the antebellum era as well as today—referred to those who terminated pregnancies as “abortionists,” despite the fact that many practitioners, both then and now, offered women a wide variety of reproductive services. It would be somewhat like calling dentists “tooth extractors” or dermatologists “mole removers,” equating practitioners with one procedure alone and simultaneously denigrating that procedure; it was a strategy to drive abortion providers out of business.[1]

Rather than “abortionist,” the women I have been studying, all of whom operated in antebellum New York City, called themselves female physicians. Madame Restell (aka Ann Lohman) is the most well-remembered among them today, but there were many others. Longworth’s city directories of the late 1830s list an Elizabeth Mott, female physician, residing at 119 Spring Street. Others in the trade, including Mrs. Bird, Madame Costello, and Mrs. Sarah Anne Welch, one-time competitors of Restell, used the same language, both in city directories and in their advertisements. Madame Costello (aka Catharine Maxwell) published a book on the subject in 1860: A Female Physician to the Ladies of the United States: Being a Familiar and Practical Treatise on Matters of Utmost Importance Peculiar to Women.[2]

None of these women had MDs. The first woman in the United States to receive formal medical training, Elizabeth Blackwell, did not earn her degree until 1849. In using the term, however, Restell and others of her ilk were not actually attempting to deceive. She and other New Yorkers would have understood a physician as a practitioner of medicine, as distinct from a surgeon, who was capable of operating on people, was likely to be formally trained, and was without question male. It is also the case that no medical doctor was licensed at the time; with a handful of short-lived exceptions, states simply did not issue medical licenses until later in the nineteenth century. It is highly unlikely that any unsuspecting patient would have believed that a female physician was formally trained. For Restell, and others, the phrase meant that she was a woman who provided medical services to other women, medical services that were almost exclusively related to that which made women distinct from men: their capacity for pregnancy. There is no question that “female physician” eventually became synonymous with “abortion” in the minds of many, but that should not detract from what those who used the phrase might have meant by it. In employing this language Restell and others like her were not simply describing their trade; implicitly they were also asserting their claim upon this term at a moment when medicine was changing, women losing ground in a domain that had largely been theirs for centuries, if not millennia.[3]

Restell, Bird, Costello, and others provided services far beyond abortion precisely because they were in the business of treating women, no matter their needs. Like a more commercialized version of a midwife, many of them ran lying-in hospitals. Women came to them for their confinements and were delivered of their children. Despite lurid accounts to the contrary, many perfectly healthy babies left Restell’s home in the arms of their mothers. Sometimes female physicians arranged for babies to be adopted or to be placed with wet nurses, especially in the era before adoption was legally regulated. In an 1850 advertisement, Catharine Maxwell explained of her “Lying-in institution”: “Sore nipples or broken Breasts speedily healed by Mrs. Maxwell. Piles, falling of the womb, and all female diseases, attended to.” Female physicians also treated amenorrhea, or the suppression of the menstrual cycle, largely by selling emmenagogues. They also sold contraceptives: both condoms and herbal remedies. Finally, female physicians terminated pregnancies, either through the sale of abortifacients (usually some combination of tansy, rue, turpentine, ergot, and other herbs and resins) or through manually bringing on a miscarriage. Patients had the option of delivering the fetus in the lying-in hospital for a fee or returning to their homes and miscarrying there. I realize that focusing on what female physicians offered their patients other than abortion might have the effect of appearing to justify their practice via these other services. Instead what I am hoping to demonstrate is that female physicians of the antebellum era were in the business of serving all of their clients’ needs in a version of what we might today call “patient-centered care.”[4]

advertisement for Madame Costello's services to women.

Advertisement for Madame Costello, New York Daily Herald, Apr. 3, 1844, p. 4. In this advertisement, Costello identifies as a female physician and offers the services of a lying-in hospital as well as alludes to her ability to terminate pregnancies. Courtesy of: Newspapers.com.

The evidence also indicates that, for all the accusations about profit and greed, female physicians in antebellum New York tended to charge fees based on a client’s capacity to pay. In one particularly famous case that resulted in an arrest and trial, Madame Restell lowered her fee significantly for a working-class woman, Ann Maria Purdy, who sought an abortion because she was still weaning her son and did not think she could care for a second child. Even when the patient returned for the procedure without adequate funds, Restell accepted a pawn slip as collateral to give Purdy time to find the payment. Restell, Mrs. Bird, and likely others, were also in the habit of exchanging household labor for reproductive services. A young woman who wanted to terminate or be delivered of a pregnancy could provide cooking, cleaning, or needlework in exchange for room, board, and medical care. Even the poorest clientele could be served through this manner of exchange.[5]

It was during the mid-nineteenth century that abortion became criminalized across the United States. One of the strategies that doctors, lawmakers, and other foes employed in that campaign was both to separate abortion from reproductive health care writ large, and then to caricature those who provided it. This strategy lives on today when critics demonize Planned Parenthood, an organization whose abortion services are dwarfed by their offerings in STI testing and care, contraception, cancer screenings, and other women’s health services. The antecedents of this woman-centered care lies in female physicians of the antebellum era, and the generations of midwives who preceded them. Madame Restell and others of her ilk early on recognized abortion as healthcare, inextricably bound to women’s ability to gain some measure of control over family planning and their own destinies.[6]


[1] See, for instance, “Restell, The Female Abortionist,” National Police Gazette, Mar. 13, 1847, 27; “The Case of Madame Restell,” New-York Tribune, Apr. 28, 1841, 2; “City Intelligence,” Evening Post (New York), Feb. 4, 1846, 2; Gunning S. Bedford, M.D., “Vaginal Hysterotomy,” New York Journal of Medicine and Collateral Sciences 2 (Mar. 1844), 199–203; “Madame Restell and Some of Her Dupes,” New York Medical and Surgical Reporter. 1, no. 10, Feb. 21, 1846, 160–61; James C. Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy (New York, 1978).

[2] Mott: Longworth’s American Almanac New-York Register and City Directory for the Sixty-Third Year of American Independence (New York, 1838), 462; Longworth’s American Almanac New-York Register and City Directory for the Sixty-Fourth Year of American Independence (New York, 1839),478, 548; Welch: “Card to Ladies,” New York Daily Herald, Nov. 21, 1837, 4; Costello: “To Married Ladies,” New York Daily Herald, Mar. 3, 1843, 4; Bird: “Dr. Vandenburgh’s Female Renovating Pills,” New York Daily Herald, Feb. 12, 1838, 3; Mrs. W. H. Maxwell, A Female Physician to the Ladies of the United States: Being a Familiar and Practical Treatise on Matters of Utmost Importance Peculiar to Women (New York, 1860).

[3] Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (New York, 1985); Janice Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicine (New York, 2021). On “female physician,” see Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science, 189; and entry for “physician” in Oxford English Dictionary online. On licensing, see Ruth Horowitz, In the Public Interest: Medical Licensing and the Disciplinary Process (New Brunswick, NJ, 2013), ch. 2.

[4] “Lying-in Institution,” New-York Tribune, Nov. 12, 1850, 2.

[5] Trial of Madame Restell, alias Ann Lohman for Abortion and Causing the Death of Mrs. Purdy (New York: n.p., 1841); “Arrest of Madame Restell,” Daily Evening Star (Brooklyn), Mar. 24, 1841, 2; and records in Purdy Case Folder, Box 1, Madame Restell Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. On exchanging household labor for services, see the case of Maria Shaw and Mrs. Bird detailed in “Mrs. Bird,” Dixon’s Polyanthos, Mar. 27, 1841, 92–93 and Record of the Inquest of Maria E. Shaw, Mar. 23, 1841, New York County Coroner Inquests, January 1841 to June 1841, Roll 18, New York Municipal Archives; or the case of Frederica Neidlinger and Madame Restell detailed in “Re-Arrest of Madame Restell,” Boston Herald, Aug. 21, 1856, 2; and records in Neidlinger Case Folder, Box 1, Madame Restell papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

[6] Mohr, Abortion in America; Planned Parenthood Annual Report, 2019–2020, 33, accessible online at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/uploads/filer_public/67/30/67305ea1-8da2-4cee-9191-19228c1d6f70/210219-annual-report-2019-2020-web-final.pdf.

11 November 2022

About the Author

Nicholas L. Syrett is an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and professor in the Department of Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas.

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