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Dear Brigham: “For the Sake of Suffering Mothers”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 01, 2011

Martha Jane Knowlton Coray (1821-1881) was an early convert to the Church, a member of the Nauvoo Relief Society, and the woman who took dictation from and helped Lucy Mack Smith write her History of the Prophet Joseph Smith by His Mother. She and her husband Howard Coray emigrated to Salt Lake City, then moved on to Provo, where Martha became the first woman to serve on the board of trustees of Brigham Young University. She was a mother, a teacher, a student of natural medicine, an advocate for women, and many, many other admirable roles.

One of her daughters, Harriet Virginia Coray (1846-1872) married Wilson H. Dusenberry, one of the brothers who operated the school that eventually became BYU, and who was also mayor of Provo. Harriet – called “Hattie” – died shortly after delivering her fourth child, a girl who died soon after birth, named for her mother. I don’t know the circumstances of Hattie’s death beyond its connection with childbirth, although the following letter suggests incompetence by her midwife – if any reader knows more of the circumstances, please share that.

Martha responded to the condolences of Brigham Young regarding Hattie’s death, with a note that channeled her own sorrow into a request that other young mothers be spared Hattie’s suffering by providing for the professional training and examination of midwives:

Prest B. Young

I thank you for your interest [in] my dear Hattie and as I have daughters and so have many others lik[e]ly to suffer in the same way by an ignorant attendant I ask you to reestablish the council of health and for the sake of suffering Mothers cause some women to be qualified for accoucheurers who shall if they practice be required to answer correctly questions which shall prove their ability. I think there is few such so women die daily and children are made motherless. I firmly believe that a class of students, women, suited in mind and temper to the calling should be established in every settlement

Your sister with deep regard for yourself and office

Mrs M J Coray



10 Comments »

  1. Tragic.

    I know you don’t want to give the date of the letter, but was this before or after Romania Bunnell Pratt was sent back east?

    Undoubtedly this was not the first or only such communication to BY, so I suppose sending Romania for medical training may have been in response to this?

    [And were other women sent also? It seems odd to send just one person when you need to cover such a broad area, or even when you are simply looking to teach others.]

    Comment by Kent Larsen — September 1, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  2. Kent, this is later than that. The practice of sending women East to be formally trained as doctors was well established. What this letter is referring to as “accoucheurers” would be women specially trained for childbirth, even if they had no other medical training. Few communities in the Mormon area could have supported a physician male or female, but every little burg and ranching neighborhood needed a midwife to help with childbirth. I think Martha is advocating an enlargement of medical training to include these women, so necessary on the frontier.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  3. To provide a counterpoint to the sadness of the death of Hattie Coray Dusenberry, let me mention (at great length!) a woman and community that were blessed by the eventual church programs for obstetrical training.

    “In 1910, [Margaret Jarvis] was chosen by the Relief Society of the St. Johns [Arizona] Ward to go to Salt Lake City and take the course in General Nursing and Obstetrics, being offered by the Church Relief Society for the benefit of the members everywhere, so that in each settlement someone with training and understanding would be available to help people in time of sickness. The Relief Society offered to pay part of the cost of tuition. She went, taking [her daughter], who was about sixteen years old [and also received training as a nurse], with her, and leaving her husband and son … to manage at home.”

    “This seemed the opportunity she had craved, for she took right up with the work and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. She learned the medical terms, and made such rapid progress, that it seemed a marvel that a woman of her age [52] and previous lack of education and technical training could obtain such wonderful insight and understanding of modern practice in the time allotted for the course. When it was through, she passed the Medical Board Examination of the State of Utah with high points, and returned home ready at call to help in sickness whenever she was needed. She presented her Certificate to the Medical Board of Arizona, and was readily accorded a certificate to practice Nursing and Obstetrics in Arizona also. Her calls were many. She lived fifteen years after her husband’s death, lived alone in a home she built, and went whenever or wherever called, night or day. Her grand-daughter … was the second baby she cared for, and her Great Grand-daughter … was the 272nd one and she never lost a case.”

    “She attributed this to the blessings of the Lord. She had some unusual and abnormal cases when she was alone and could get no help, but through her faith and the blessings of the Lord, as she always said, they got along without a loss. She was a veritable Angel of Mercy in many homes. Especially was she depended on and appreciated among the Mexican mothers of the town, to whom her skill and jovial personality were such a comfort. Many of them depended upon her implicitly.”

    Comment by Researcher — September 1, 2011 @ 11:51 am

  4. Interesting post and comments, thanks.

    I found very interesting the fact that Martha felt the subject important enough to ask Brigham Young to reconsider a policy decision: ‘reestablish the council of health’. I’ve read previously about sending women elsewhere to be trained a doctors, but what was the ‘council of health’? Was it a formal body, a calling, or is she using some sort of colloquial term?

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 1, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  5. Another poignant addition to our story. Thanks, Ardis.

    And thanks, Researcher, for your comment as well. I wonder, if Sister Jarvis practiced her art in St. Johns for all those years, how many of my great-uncles and -aunts and cousins of varying degrees she assisted into this world.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 1, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  6. Researcher, brava! That’s exactly the follow-up this letter needed.

    Anne, the Female Council of Health was a formal body established in 1851, to teach basic hygiene and health, and herbal medicine according to the knowledge of the time. If I recall correctly, female blessing and reliance on faith were also stressed. The Council dissolved in 1857 when so much of Mormon society was disrupted by the Utah War and wasn’t reestablished when things calmed down.

    I don’t know much more about it, but should. (Anybody with a copy of Daughters in My Kingdom — does the new history discuss it at all? or what is in that book about women’s medical efforts sponsored by the Relief Society? Let’s give our new resource a workout.)

    Thanks, Mark. Whether we know the details or not, I’ll best most of us with ancestry going back to early Deseret have the ancestors we have in part because they survived due to Relief Society and other women’s medical training efforts.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

  7. Oh, this was difficult to read. You can sense the mother’s restrained anguish throughout.

    Comment by David Y. — September 1, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

  8. Thank you, Ardis. Can’t we vote you into public office as Head of Utah History, or something?

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 2, 2011 @ 2:44 am

  9. I was going to make a snarky comment involving Researcher’s comment and the “official” RS manual just released, but I see the comparison has already been made.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 2, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  10. Wasn’t meant to be snarky … unless, of course, the new history doesn’t address Relief Society health efforts. I don’t know yet. I’ve had a few minutes to flip through a friend’s copy of the new manual, but that wasn’t enough time to do more than evaluate its appearance and read a very few scattered lines.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 2, 2011 @ 10:24 am

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