Author to profile Fairfield’s first female doctor
As many Ledger readers have learned in recent months, Fairfield turns 175 years old this year.
The occasion provides residents a chance to reflect on the town’s history. Documents from Fairfield’s early decades are highly prized because they are in short supply. Carnegie Historical Museum curator Mark Shafer said photographs, particularly of the town before 1890, are rare.
That hasn’t deterred Greta Nettleton of Palisades, New York, from digging deep into the history of her ancestors, who settled in Fairfield in 1851. One of those ancestors was her great-great-grandmother Dr. Rebecca J. Keck, the town’s first female physician and the subject of Nettleton’s upcoming book, “The Charmed Line.”
Rebecca received notoriety not only for being the town’s first female physician but also for being a successful herbalist who treated patients with alternative medicine.
She was born Rebecca J. Ilginfritz in 1838 near Akron, Ohio, and moved to Fairfield with her family at age 13. There, she married John Conrad Keck, a foundry owner and inventor. John ran a machinery company that competed with William Louden’s famous Louden Machine Company. Unfortunately for John, his machinery company could not compete with the major firms and went broke during the banking panic of 1873. He was never the same man after that. Nettleton said she believes he had a nervous breakdown and was unable to maintain gainful employment for the rest of his life.
The responsibility to put food on the table fell to his wife Rebecca, who had experience using natural herbal remedies to treat the medical problems of her friends and family. In 1874, Rebecca began to charge for her tonics and treatments, which proved to be a lucrative business. The family rather quickly went from rags to riches thanks to Rebecca’s practice as an “eclectic physician,” as she called it.
Not everyone in town shared the Keck family’s cheer over Rebecca’s newfound success. Nettleton said the local doctors of that era wouldn’t give Rebecca the time of day. In their mind, she was nothing but a “quack,” and consequently that was how she was remembered by the public years later despite her success.
Nettleton found in the Carnegie Historical Museum a book by Dr. James Frederick Clarke, who wrote the only history of all doctors in Jefferson County and was the only eyewitness of Rebecca while she was still practicing in Fairfield.
Shafer said Clarke was a forward-thinking, Renaissance man who founded a hospital in town and was responsible for starting the women’s nursing corps in the Army. Nettleton said he was a very good man and an accomplished doctor but his views on female physicians were not exactly advanced.
“He was happy with women as long as they were subordinate,” she said. “They could be smart and capable, but as nurses. The way he discussed women physicians in his history is grossly inadequate.”
Clarke wrote about Rebecca in his history with what Nettleton describes as “courteous sarcasm” and that his opinion of her was one of “contempt.” For instance, he emphasized in the book that when he was a young boy in 1875, he saw Rebecca wear bloomers in the town’s square. Bloomers were loose-fitting knee- or ankle-length pants worn by women in the latter half of the 19th century that were met with a severe public backlash since they deviated from the floor-length dresses and thick petticoats common at that time.
“Her bloomers electrified the town,” Nettleton said. “It was extremely shocking. In those days, little boys would follow women wearing bloomers and throw rotten food at them.”
Nettleton said Rebecca’s decision to wear bloomers was a major statement to the public that she was rebelling against the expectations of society. Before then, Rebecca was content to live as an ordinary housewife who entered her jams and jellies in the state fair.
“She acted differently after encountering so much resistance from the other doctors,” Nettleton said. “I think she felt pushed against a wall by this circumstance.”
Owing to the hostility of her fellow doctors, Rebecca and her family pulled up stakes in 1875 to move to Davenport, where they settled in a large mansion in the middle of town. Nettleton said Rebecca still felt marginalized in Davenport, but through her perseverance, she ultimately received a certificate from the state to practice medicine as an eclectic physician. Eclectic physicians such as Rebecca tended to serve farmers and laborers as opposed to the very wealthy, who turned to homeopathic doctors for treatments. Eclectic medical schools did not receive the large endowments necessary to sustain themselves and have since all died out.
Nettleton believes most of the vitriol directed at Rebecca had to do with her being a woman and not with the efficacy of her methods. The 19th century marked a dramatic leap in medical knowledge around the world as the germ theory of disease came to be accepted science. Nettleton said she has little evidence about the effectiveness of Rebecca’s herbal treatments although she is confident that in some cases they were far superior to those of the mainstream doctors of the day who prescribed arsenic and mercury to treat venereal diseases and blood-letting to treat fevers.
The diary of Rebecca’s daughter, Cora, indicates that her methods saved the life of Cora’s daughter Charlotte when the child was only two years old.
“Charlotte was receiving treatments from a regular doctor that were killing her,” Nettleton wrote. “Dr. Keck took over and saved the little girl’s life.”
Nettleton’s interest was especially piqued by that story since Charlotte is her grandmother. Nettleton never met her grandmother because Charlotte died in 1920 and her great-grandmother Cora died a year later. Nettleton grew up in Connecticut and knew little about her ancestors in Iowa.
That all changed when her family moved and left Nettleton a set of trunks, one of which contained Cora’s photo albums and diaries. Nettleton was amazed at her family’s rich history and knew she had to make it known to a larger audience. She has just published a book about Cora’s life called “The Quack’s Daughter,” which includes Cora’s time at Vassar College and her work as a musician.
Nettleton has relied on the Carnegie Historical Museum and the Fairfield Public Library for information about Rebecca J. Keck, the subject of her forthcoming book “The Charmed Line,” which she hopes to publish in the fall of 2015. She said the book’s title refers to the dividing line between accepted and unaccepted medicine, and how that line has changed over time.
Nettleton gave a slide show presentation on Fairfield’s first female physician and signed books at the library June 25, which she will do again Friday during 1st Fridays Art Walk. She will be at the library from 6-10 p.m.