From time to time, we will be posting profiles of our Gest Fellows. Susan Hanket Brandt is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Temple University. Her dissertation is entitled “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners: Gender and Healing Authority in the Mid-Atlantic Region, 1740-1830.”
My dissertation complicates the current declension model that narrates women healers’ prominence in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and their subsequent loss of authority in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries due to the rise of enlightened science, male-authored medical texts, man-midwifery, and clinical-anatomical education in the increasingly numerous medical schools. Instead, I argue that some women found new sources of healing authority in female education, manuscript authorship, the culture of sensibility, access to print media, and the antiauthoritarianism of dissenting religious groups like the Society of Friends. The dearth of female practitioners’ medical recipe books and papers has contributed to their misleading invisibility. A goal of my dissertation is to uncover women healers’ hidden practices and their vital role in the American healthcare marketplace.
The Gest Fellowship allowed me to analyze the recipe book, garden book, diaries, business papers, and thousands of family letters penned by healer Margaret Hill Morris (1737-1816) and her family. The letters are a particularly rich source, as they chronicle Morris’ day-to-day healing practice as it changed over the course of her adult life, from a benevolent ministry to a profitable medical/apothecary business. Morris’ writings demonstrate how she constructed her healing authority as she participated in therapeutic social networks, examined medical books, and cared for extended family members and patients in her community. Morris’ profound Quaker beliefs were a source of spiritual comfort for patients and family members as they faced frequent illnesses and the deaths of loved ones. The letters chart an Atlantic exchange of healing information and medicinal plants between Quakers in Philadelphia, Madeira, and the British Isles. In addition, the papers of traveling ministers Rebecca Jones and Mary Swet include medicinal recipes, raising the question of healing practice as part of their transatlantic ministry.
The Special Collections staff’s assistance was invaluable in my research. Professors Emma Jones Lapsansky and Susan Mosher Stuard also offered helpful suggestions. My Gest Fellowship research will help me to analyze the scope of Quaker women’s healing practices and authority in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Delaware Valley.
–Susan Hanket Brandt