Just Call Her Dr. Smith
Lettie Smith was a women's rights advocate and Newtown's first female doctor.
Since it’s still Women’s History Month and tomorrow, March 30, is National
Doctors’ Day, this week’s installment will focus on Lettie A. Smith. The Quaker woman of substance was an inventor, a women's rights advocate and Newtown's first female doctor.
Born on Dec. 11, 1816, she learned responsibility early due to her mother Mary's lengthy illness and subsequent death when Lettie was just 14. Smith ran her father's household on the family's Wrightstown farm, called Oakendale, especially after her sisters married. Her brother, Josiah B. Smith, was a founder of the Bucks County Historical Society.
The efficient household manager invented a machine to churn butter and received a patent for her butter worker in 1853, marketing them at area agricultural fairs.
Two of her neatly penned diaries detailing six years of her life from 1854 to 1860 are housed in the Newtown Historic Association archives, giving insight to that era.
In transcribed volumes, editor Connie Houchins writes, "The reader learns that the workday included occasional strenuous activities like butchering and soap making as well as the worrisome duties of taking in borders and managing hired help."
Although much of the entries are weather-related and detailed visits to the sick, the entries, beginning when Smith was 37, also show what people in the pre-Civil War era did for fun.
They'd travel to Atlantic City for an ocean swim, by carriage to Philadelphia to tour Eastern State Penitentiary and spent the occasional evening meeting with spiritualists to try "conferring with departed friends."
In June 1855, Smith attended the anti-slavery meeting at Newtown Hall, now the Newtown Theatre, where Mahlon Linton, James Mott and Lucretia Mott addressed the crowd.
Mott and her husband helped found the American Antislavery Society. She and fellow women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848.
Inspired by Mott's address, Smith penned, "I was much engaged after the meeting adjourned in procuring subscribers to 'The Woman's Advocate,' the first paper ever produced in this and perhaps any other country, solely by the joint stock, capital, energy and industry of females."
She continued to attend other meetings during the Mott's visit to Newtown and collected 30 subscribers.
Earlier that year, in April 1855, a diary entry gives readers insight into Smith’s desire to become a doctor.
Upon the visit of a sick stranger, she writes, "Poor lonely child of misfortune, my heart bleeds for thee. ... I have long wished that I could render her more assistance than I can. ... She needs the care of a skillful physician and a good quiet home to rest and regain her health. ... Oh that the time may come when I shall have ample means of my own to sooth the wounds and misfortunes of the poverty stricken poor - no pleasures on earth can compare with this, and may this be mine."
Twelve years later, Smith’s dream became a reality.
After her father's death in 1861, Smith, who never married, went to Philadelphia to study medicine at the Woman's Medical College in Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1867 at the age of 51.
That same year Smith became the first superintendent of Newtown Friends’ First-day School (Quaker Sunday school), which began on June 29, 1867, in the parlor of her home on Court Street.
In 1872, she built a large brick house at 18 S. Chancellor St., now known as the Chancellor Apartments, and moved her medical practice there. Her business card stated that her specialties included chronic diseases, such as dyspepsia, liver and lung disease and diseases of women.
Upon retiring in 1897, she offered her house as a boarding home for aged Friends. In 1899, the Quaker boarding home was incorporated and in 1900, it moved to its current location between Congress Street and Centre Avenue.
Smith continued to live in her Chancellor Street home until her death in 1912.