Grand Rapids had more women physicians in the 1890s than in the 1950s, when trails had to blazed for a second time. A beneficiary of early women pioneers in medicine, Frances Armstrong Rutherford became our city’s first female physician. Before moving to Michigan, she graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1868 and trained at Elizabeth Blackwell’s New York Infirmary in the first class to receive instruction in operative surgery. Once here, Rutherford was elected city physician by the 1870 Grand Rapids city council. So far, it has not been disproven that she was the first woman in the U.S. to hold that office.
As city physician in a rapidly growing city of 16,000, she was responsible for providing medical services to indigent residents, controlling the spread of contagious diseases, and attempting improvements in sanitation. She remained in the post for three years before resigning in protest over low pay and, purportedly, her inability to vote on the position to which she had been elected.
After leaving the city office, Rutherford became a staff member in gynecology and pediatrics at the Union Benevolent Association, later Blodgett Hospital.
Rutherford also opened paths for women in professional medical organizations. In 1872, she became one of the first three women physicians admitted to the Michigan State Medical Society, which she served as vice president in 1873. Representing her local medical organization at a Chicago meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA), she probably became the first woman ever elected as a regular delegate.
She had a long and rewarding career in Grand Rapids, both in medicine (where she also oversaw early nursing programs) and in community institutions (she was a founding member of many, like the YWCA). But in their public lives, nineteenth-century professional women were sometimes considered not far removed from women “of the streets.” Physician Frances Armstrong Rutherford became a model negotiator of this especially tricky terrain.
This biography can also be found in the March 2019 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.
“Dr. Frances A. Rutherford.” FindAGrave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/113487115/frances-a-rutherford.