Jennie Nicol, M.D., Pi Beta Phi Founder, #amazingsororitywomen

I hear there is a big Pi Beta Phi celebration in the works – #PiPhi150. The receptionist at Pi Phi’s Headquarters is a Monmouth College alumna and the last time I was there, she shared with me a recent Monmouth College magazine. In it was an article written by the magazine’s editor, Jeff Rankin. He is also the college historian. I thank him for allowing me to share this article.

Global Health Pioneer

By Jeff Rankin, Editor and Historian

When the first collegiate fraternity for women was founded at Monmouth College in 1867, women were not even admitted to many American colleges, so the 12 female founders of the organization can truly be considered trailblazers.

It’s interesting to note that this year’s launch of the Monmouth College Global Public Health Triad coincides with the 150th anniversary of Pi Beta Phi’s founding. One of those founders would go on to further defy gender stereotypes of the 19th century, becoming not only a medical doctor, but also one who practiced her craft globally. Jennie Nicol, Class of 1868, would certainly have embraced Monmouth College’s new Global Public Health Triad, had it been offered a century and a half ago.

The second of four children, Jennie was born Rachel Jane Nicol in 1845 in Edgington, Ill., to Presbyterian parents who had emigrated from Ohio. She was brought up on a farm near Little York. Her older brother, Drennan, drowned in the Mississippi, while her youngest brother, David, died in the Civil War. Of her three brothers, only William would survive, becoming a successful farmer in Warren County.

In 1861, when she was only 16, Jennie’s father died. On Aug. 20, 1864, her brother David was among eight members of Company C, Illinois 83rd infantry who were killed by Confederate guerillas while they were patrolling near Fort Donelson in Tennessee. That fall, Jennie enrolled at Monmouth College with her childhood friend, Emma Brownlee, who grew up on a farm two miles down the road. Jennie enrolled in the Scientific Program and excelled in her studies. Perhaps growing up with three brothers made her yearn for a sister, and that she found in Emma Brownlee, who would become a lifelong friend and confidant. Perhaps it was the desire for sisterhood that led both Jennie and Emma to become founding members of I.C. Sorosis during their junior year.

After graduating from Monmouth, Jennie returned to the family farm, while Emma married Dr. J.C. Kilgore, a Civil War veteran who had been confined for three months in Confederate prisons at Vicksburg and Jackson, Miss. Although Jennie remained at home, it is clear that her ambitions were to enter the field of medicine. When Emma’s father died of cholera in August 1873, the Brownlee home was considered a pesthouse and no one would come to comfort the family—no one except Jennie Nicol. Then Emma was stricken with the disease and when no one but her husband thought she could live, Jennie helped Dr. Kilgore nurse her back to health.

It may have been during this time that Dr. Kilgore encouraged Jennie to enter medical school, lending her some of his textbooks. The first women were admitted to medical schools in 1850, but even by the 1870s it was extremely rare for women to study medicine. Dr. Kilgore convinced Jennie to enroll at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. In fact, he and Jennie both encouraged Emma to enroll with her, but she eventually decided against it.

Emma would later recall how dedicated Jennie was to her profession. “She loved it,” Emma said. “She loved work. She was very thorough in district school and in college. She wanted to know—no guess work. She despised a sham—had little use for a poor student. No woman ever entered the profession with a nobler purpose. In that day you know it was not popular for a woman to enter professional life. She was determined to be the equal of her brothers in the profession. She used to say, ‘I think we should have women physicians and I have an ambition to show the men what a woman can do.’”

According to Emma, when Jennie left for Philadelphia, she wore her I.C. arrow pin. “She was very proud of her arrow and was a faithful member,” Emma recalled. “I think it meant much to her—she had no real sister…Laughingly she said, ‘I wonder if they will know in the East what I.C. means.’”

In its early days, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania faced serious opposition from the male medical establishment. Women were said to be too feeble-minded to succeed in the demanding arena of academic medicine and too delicate to endure the physical requirements of clinical practice. One of the most serious barriers to the success of the college was the lack of clinical experience available to its students and interns because area hospitals would not allow women to attend lectures or to treat patients. These prejudices surface in the following letter, written to Emma three weeks after her arrival in Philadelphia:

Dear Emma:

I am highly pleased with the Medical College so far as matters have come within the range of my comprehension. Some of the professors make themselves quite intelligible and others have given five or six lectures, without using a single word by means of which we could gain the slightest clue to enable us to guess what they were talking about and all this after being told the subject of the lectures. The professor in Physiology, after the quiz on yesterday, complimented the class on the amount of information acquired, saying we might consider ourselves fortunate, if in all this time we had been able to grasp a single idea, also adding that ideas were very scarce—a statement which I was not slow to believe. But after manifesting to their seeming satisfaction their ability to handle the isms and ologies of the day they (the professors) are gliding down to a plane in which such befogged beings as myself can now and then catch a familiar word. The most absurd of all things is the coming away here to attend a Woman’s Medical College and then attend clinics with five or six tallow-brained, dough-faced specimens of the genus homo, from Jefferson Medical College. I fail to see in what way fifty or a hundred would be worse than five. I have taken such a fancy to surgery that you need not be surprised to hear of my making that branch of the profession a speciality.

Two weeks later, Jennie wrote:

Dear Emma:

My boarding place is just three doors from the college. I have at present two roommates, one a lady from Chicago, the other from Indiana. The present arrangement is not a permanent one. I expect to have a room alone after the close of the Centennial. The house accommodates 21 boarders. This is my third place and I am talking of changing again, but have not fully decided that I will. Where I am we must go 2½ miles to the Pennsylvania Hospital one day in the week, also 1½ miles to church.

I have not been very busy yet. I have concluded to spend the winter on Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology; I have not begun dissecting, as the material on hand did not present a very attractive appearance; I am waiting for cool weather, and until some unfortunate victim sees his way clear to devote his mortal remains to the advancement of science. R.J. Nicol

After graduating from the medical college, Jennie spent a year interning in Boston at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, the first hospital in the nation to offer obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics within a single facility. The hospital was established in 1863 with a three-fold purpose: “To provide for women medical aid of competent physicians of their own sex; to assist educated women in the practice and study of medicine; and to train nurses for the care of the sick.”

In May 1879 Jennie wrote to Emma:

The New England Hospital is delightfully located in Boston Highlands, on an eminence from which the city and its numerous suburbs can be viewed. I have seen very little of the city yet. Have been out twice since I came, which I do not consider a great cross as I did not come on a visit. The hospital is not connected with any medical school nor is it a charity hospital (except a few endowed beds which may be occupied by free patients) hence the class of people with which we work is quite different from that ordinarily met in hospital work. I am to spend my first four months in the surgical wards and have already become deeply interested in my patients. Each Dr. is expected to visit the patients under her care before breakfast, dinner, and supper, also again in the forenoon with the chief of the hospital. After supper each one reports to the chief physician the condition of her patients. Each puts up her own medicines also. Tuesdays and Fridays are set apart for surgical operations.

In December, Jennie wrote to Emma:

You ask how I like my profession. My reply is, the more I know of the principles upon which its practice is founded, the deeper becomes my interest in, and the greater my admiration for it. My great lamentation is that I did not begin the study ten years sooner than I did. I am and have been since Nov. 1st in the Dispensary connected with the New England Hospital. We have clinics every forenoon, and while away our afternoons and alas too many of our nights visiting patients at their homes. It is especially interesting to be called up at 1 or 2 in the night, when the horse cars are not running, and find a walk of from one to three miles before you, with the inspiration of a pouring rain or a terrific snowstorm to spur you on, but then every rose has its thorn, we are told, but know ’tis false.

With love to yourself and kind regards to inquiring friends, I am, your friend, R.J. Nicol.

Jennie’s lifelong yearning for adventure continued following her internship, as she boarded a ship and traveled to Germany and Holland before ending up at the University of Zurich, where she would continue her medical studies. She wrote to Emma in December of 1880:

Am I attending the university? Yes, I am attending two lectures daily and the remainder of the time I am devoting to clinics and the hospital; I am also having practical work in the pathological laboratory, three hours every Friday. With earnest desire for your welfare, I am, sincerely yours, R.J. Nicol.

Three months after writing that letter, Jennie lay stricken with pneumonia in the Zurich hospital. Although she was able to shake off this disease, she eventually contracted meningitis. When a nurse bent over her and asked if she knew that she could not get well, for the first time her face showed emotion, her chin trembled and the tears came. With Jennie in her last illness in the Zurich hospital was a fellow student, also an American, Dr. Ellen F. Powers. Dr. Powers made her body ready for burial and return to Little York, where late in April 1881, Jennie was laid to rest. As her cousin Matthew Jamison would later write, “In due course her remains went by rail to the seaboard, then across the solemn main homeward bound, and by rail once more, a long journey, to the lonely churchyard on the hill, on Cedar Creek.”

Jennie Nicol, M.D.

What was it about Jennie that made her so ambitious and successful in an era when women were expected to be wives and mothers? According to Jamison, “Rachel’s was a reserved, kindly, well-poised personality, manifesting a certain mental solidity and strength of character.”

But she also had strong feminine traits, according to Emma Brownlee, who wrote, “To strangers she was cold, dignified, almost exacting, but that was not her real character. She was kind and loving and very helpful to others and went about doing good.”

Although her body lay in a lonely grave in a remote churchyard, Jennie’s spirit continued healing patients into the 20th century. In 1922, Pi Beta Phi established a public health clinic on the campus of its settlement school in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The clinic was dubbed the Jennie Nicol Memorial Health Center and served the health care needs of Gatlinburg residents, as well as neighboring communities, for the next 43 years.

Jennie Nicol Memorial Hospital (Health Center), Pi Beta Phi Settlement School. Gatlinburg, TN, circa 1922

This entry was posted in Monmouth College, Pi Beta Phi and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.