Women Healers

Gender, Authority, and Medicine in Early Philadelphia

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Pub Date 15 Apr 2022 | Archive Date 15 Apr 2022

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In her eighteenth-century medical recipe manuscript, the Philadelphia healer Elizabeth Coates Paschall asserted her ingenuity and authority with the bold strokes of her pen. Paschall developed an extensive healing practice, consulted medical texts, and conducted experiments based on personal observations. As British North America’s premier city of medicine and science, Philadelphia offered Paschall a nurturing environment enriched by diverse healing cultures and the Quaker values of gender equality and women’s education. She participated in transatlantic medical and scientific networks with her friend, Benjamin Franklin. Paschall was not unique, however. Women Healers recovers numerous women of European, African, and Native American descent who provided the bulk of health care in the greater Philadelphia area for centuries.

Although the history of women practitioners often begins with the 1850 founding of Philadelphia’s Female Medical College, the first women’s medical school in the United States, these students merely continued the legacies of women like Paschall. Remarkably, though, the lives and work of early American female practitioners have gone largely unexplored. While some sources depict these women as amateurs whose influence declined, Susan Brandt documents women’s authoritative medical work that continued well into the nineteenth century. Spanning a century and a half, Women Healers traces the transmission of European women’s medical remedies to the Delaware Valley where they blended with African and Indigenous women’s practices, forming hybrid healing cultures.

Drawing on extensive archival research, Brandt demonstrates that women healers were not inflexible traditional practitioners destined to fall victim to the onward march of Enlightenment science, capitalism, and medical professionalization. Instead, women of various classes and ethnicities found new sources of healing authority, engaged in the consumer medical marketplace, and resisted physicians’ attempts to marginalize them. Brandt reveals that women healers participated actively in medical and scientific knowledge production and the transition to market capitalism.

In her eighteenth-century medical recipe manuscript, the Philadelphia healer Elizabeth Coates Paschall asserted her ingenuity and authority with the bold strokes of her pen. Paschall developed an...

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Featured Reviews

Okay, this is giving me straight up Claire Fraser vibes!!!

In real life, I could never have the patience, skill, and heart to accomplish some of the amazing tasks these women take on, especially in the 18th century. I seriously can't wrap my head around this.

I really loved learning about the first woman's medical school and all the great strides and legacies that came from that giant step. The obstacles alone make this book extremely entertaining and full of history.

Bravo, Susan Brandt!

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Women of the 16th and 17th century were healers. They were often marginalized by male physicians, who sneeringly referred to them as “old wives,” yet apparently they were able to help more of the infirm than were many of these men. William Penn’s wife, Gulielma Springett Penn, was one of the Quaker women who provided medical assistance in Philadelphia. Sadly, Native and African women were even more marginalized, though white practitioners often relied on their knowledge and expertise. Many healers of the time followed the classic theory of balancing the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow, and black bile) to restore health. Another tradition was the Doctrine of Signatures, which presumed that a plant which looked like a body part would therefore be good to treat a related illness. Even though in the 19th century a medical college for women only opened in Philadelphia, critics still challenged them. This extensively researched book is recommended for readers interested in medicine, or in women’s history.

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Book review of Women Healers

Women Healers by Susan H Brandt is a non-fiction book surrounding the topic of women healers throughout the century. Her exploration of history books and magazines brings out the hidden women healers of the USA. Her research is mostly based in the USA but we should not forget the importance of this research for the whole world.

The writing style is continuous and explores this in detail. The healers that have been explored have been given a chapter each for proper exploration. The author has done a proper job in bringing out how women were overshadowed by men of those times. Even these few names that we can glean from history are only because of the popularity of these women. There are several others similar to these who remain unknown throughout history.

I enjoyed the part where the author explained in detail the processes which were followed by these healers to extract the remedies. They used the hit and trial method, asked people around, and then properly note all the collected information in their journal. It was a huge help to common people who struggled with the lack of doctors or enough resources in small towns and villages. The relevance can be understood by the fact that these healers were a huge part of the women nurses that healed the wounded. Their role is exceptional and very important to remember. Despite seeing so much chaos and wound and horror, they all calmly carried on their work and saved so many lives. This is an amazing book to read and know more about the lives of these women healers.

The only difficulty I found while reading this book was the abundance of information packed in each chappter. This book will be a good read for someone doing research or collecting information for their thesis or paper, but for a casual reading audience, this might not be that interesting.

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As an herbalist, this book was a great way for me to tap into the roots of my practice.
Beautifully written and inspiring. Necessary history lesson for all of us, I think.

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An academic text, this book (and PhD dissertation) dives into the particulars of the contributions of colonial women to the study of medicine in early American history. Ms Brandt points out some of the misogynistic and racist slander targeted toward early woman healers, but spends more effort focusing on their successes and historical significance. Most time is spent on the contribution of Euro-American women (as there are likely far more extensive records on these select few women). A good chapter is dedicated to the contribution of Native American and African American women to the healing arts through ancestral homeopathic cures. The contributions of the Quakers and their open education for all mentality as a cure for societal as well as physical ills is discussed in brief as well. An extensive glossary, list of abbreviations, and exhaustive notes provide further information and reading sources. An interesting read for a cross-curricular study of women's studies, medicine, and early US history. Best suited for readers of high school age or older with a particular interest in any of the afore mentioned subjects.

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When we usually think about books that would be labeled as “History,” most of us will generally focus on specific dates or events that made a difference in our world. Fortunately, there are others who look at the niche events (or series of events) and then choose to report them to the rest of us. “Women Healers” is one of those history books that examines a time in America’s history and what happened to a certain group of people and how they affected the lives of those around them.

Author Susan H. Brandt deserves kudos for what must have been a tireless task. Much of the information about these women is no longer available, and Ms. Brandt must have scoured many outlets seeking to find all the knowledge she packed in this book. Though not a message that was hammered home, these women had to be strong. After all, they were living in America as far back as the 17th century. Women were not encouraged to be business owners, let alone jump into the business of healing.

The author traces the lives of a few who were more prominent than others. I found interesting how the information was shared among healers, and that knowledge from those of other countries as well as Native Americans also made its way into the journals of these women. This is an inspiring book, and made me wish I had a copy of some of their books of knowledge. Highly recommended. Five stars.

My thanks to Net/Galley and University of Pennsylvania Press for a complimentary advance copy of this book.

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I was intrigued by the synopsis of this recently published title and requested an advance reader's copy since it falls firmly within my spheres of interest - women's/social history in the Colonial period and early Federalist period here in the United States. This nonfiction title is an extensively researched discussion on the unique interplay of forces at work in Pennsylvania (and surrounding regions/states along the mid-northeastern seaboard) of Enlightment philosophies on life, the Quaker/Friends support of women as equal learners to men (or at least women of a certain upper social class), the expansion of interactions with both Native Americans and the Africans who were slaves in the New World and the European colonials, and the expansion of trade and mercantilism as America moved from being colonies of England to an independent nation.

Drawing heavily on the few existing diaries and written records of these women healers, Brandt traces the development of the practice of medicine in Philadelphia and the eager quest for knowledge for new remedies to cure what ailed the colonists. While many of the women she discusses in the book are of an upper social class (and one of the reasons we know who they are as they had the education and income to write and keep "receipt books" of the remedies they used), there were doubtless countless other women who practiced medicine at either a household or neighborhood level. The interconnection of social duty to care for one's family and one's neighbors along with a belief among the Quakers of Pennsylvania that women could and should learn as men did meant that the practical knowledge these women attained was able to be shared through their diaries, letters, and the exchange of books.

I was a bit disappointed that more emphasis wasn't given to the actual herbal remedies used. I have an interest in that, but this book is focused more on the social and economic aspects of women practicing medicine than in the specifics of their treatments (although there are some discussions of cures used in the time period). I felt like this was a VERY dense book. I found it a slow read, despite being interested in the subject matter and while it is obviously really well researched with a lot of historical data, and I think would be daunting for most except other scholars looking for background reading for similar research. I also felt like there wasn't enough background information on the Quakers for the casual reader, and their very different approach to the status of women and the education of women might not make much sense to someone looking to understand why there was such a growth of women healers in the Philadelphia area.

Rating this was 3-1/2 out of 5 stars as I felt it was well-researched but a dry presentation unlikely to appeal to the vast majority of readers who might be interested in the topic.

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While this is a very interesting and detailed book recounting the way in which women contributed to medical practice and science in the Colonial area around Philadelphia, it reads much more like a series of articles that have been expanded into a longer work than a book. Or even worse, tedious essays that follow the structure a) tell them what you’re going to tell them, b) tell them c) tell them what you told them.

The way each woman’s story is recounted is repetitive and while some of their larger networks are outlined in detail, it’s done in such a tedious way that it’s dull to read. I hate to pick on the style, but this was a slog because of it despite the very interesting content.

If you want to know about individual women’s medical practices (by name), their larger networks of how they acquired new knowledge, practices and ingredients and the political and social milieu of the time that allowed them to flourish, this book has all of that information. Including how medical knowledge was used to help outsiders be viewed more favorably by the general population.

There are detailed run-downs of women’s individual medical practices, as much as can be known, including those of Native American and black women, including very detailed information on Sarah Bass Allen, one of the founders of the AME church. Quaker women, rich and not so rich, immigrant women, and wealthy women exhibiting noblesse oblige are also included and are, of course, the best documented. The influence of non-traditional and evangelical church structures are also part of the story, as they helped women gain power and influence within their communities and facilitated their medical practice.

There is also ample evidence as to how women’s medical practices both impacted the availability of local healthcare as well as the fortunes of their various families.

It also gives details about early collaboration with formally educated male doctors and the later crack down on women and their ouster from the profession. This led to the foundation of the Female Medical College in Philadelphia.

This book is very well-researched (nearly a quarter of its length is citations) and references primary source material extensively, but it’s just about as much of a slog as reading the primary sources yourself. It seems very useful for its truly extensive bibliography and would be a terrific place to start for your own research on any of these individuals or women’s medical practice in the United States in general.

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