Person

Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt

A black and white photographic sitting portrait of Harriot K. Hunt.
Physician and activist Dr. Harriot K. Hunt

Massachusetts Historical Society

Quick Facts

The cause of women’s rights consumed Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt’s life. As a physician, she focused on women’s health issues, gaining admiration from her patients. As a women’s rights activist, Hunt challenged the boundaries that restricted women in education and in society. Despite facing foes as powerful as Harvard University and the City of Boston, Harriot Hunt never lost sight of her goals and dedicated herself to empowering women.

Born in 1805, Harriot Hunt grew up in the North End of Boston. Having started a schoolroom in 1827, Hunt shifted her focus to medicine in 1833 when her sister, Sarah, became deathly ill.[1] After numerous visits to doctors who provided no cure, Harriot Hunt met Dr. Richard Dixon Mott and Mrs. Elizabeth Mott, an English couple whose medical practice focused on natural remedies and herbal treatments.[2] Although many considered the Motts unqualified “quacks,” Harriot Hunt saw the positive effects of their treatment on her sister, who soon recovered.[3] This experience resulted in Hunt’s most significant life decision—to become a physician.

Harriot and Sarah Hunt apprenticed under the Motts, reading about medicine and learning how to take a holistic approach to curing illness. To Harriot Hunt, “Medical science, full of unnecessary details, lacked, to my mind, a soul; it was a huge, unwieldy body—distorted, deformed, inconsistent, and complicated.”[4] She became part of a health movement that focused on natural remedies and “heart histories,” in which physicians considered all aspects of the patient’s life when determining treatments.[5] Also, Hunt believed physicians and patients “must be coworkers” in treatments, for only “The doctor and the patient together” have the ability “to cure or mitigate the disease.”[6]

Medical Career

In 1835, Harriot and Sarah Hunt started their own practice in the West End neighborhood of Boston.[7] Thus began Hunt’s formal medical career treating women's illnesses. She argued “the female physician, is the physician for the female patient,” as women felt more comfortable discussing personal matters with female physicians instead of male doctors.[8]

Harriot Hunt’s growing professional esteem led her to help establish the Ladies’ Physiological Society in Charlestown in 1843, which later became the Ladies’ Physiological Institute in Boston. With lectures twice a month, women discussed and learned about women’s health issues. Hunt actively contributed to this organization for many years, even serving as president from 1856-1857.[9] In her autobiography Glances and Glimpses,[10] Hunt recalled fond memories of the Society, as it “gave me the first hint as to the possibility of lecturing to my own sex on physical laws.”[11]

Although over a decade into her career, Harriot Hunt still believed in continued education to refine her craft. Having “a simple and single desire for such medical knowledge,” Hunt decided to apply to attend lectures at Harvard University’s Medical School.[12] First rejected in 1847 because her entrance was considered “inexpedient,” Hunt re-applied several years later, winning admittance by the Medical Faculty in 1850.[13] However, due to an illness, she could not attend lectures for several months. During this time, the male students discovered her admittance and protested the Faculty’s decision, declaring:

...That we are not opposed to allowing woman her rights, but do protest against her appearing in places where her presence is calculated to destroy our respect for the modesty and delicacy of her sex.[14]

As a result of this opposition, it appears Harriot Hunt never attended lectures at Harvard. She did not let this deter her from continuing to learn on her own. In 1853, the Female Medical College of Philadelphia granted her an honorary degree in recognition of her years in the profession.[15] Despite having no formal degree, many contemporaries called her “Dr. Harriot K. Hunt” and identified her as the “first woman physician in the country.”[16] Lucy Stone said of her: ”It was said women could not be doctors. Well, Harriet[sic] Hunt has proved by practice that a woman can be, and is, a successful physician.”[17]

Women's Rights Activist

Working in Boston, Harriot Hunt became exposed to the early rumblings of the women’s rights movement. Hunt recalled “earnest, serious discussions on the condition of woman enlivened my business room...and women were beginning to see that they must protect themselves.”[18] From professional observations of her patients to her own personal experiences, Hunt saw how discrimination against women affected their health, access to education, and their place in society.[19] Her formal entrance into the movement came with the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850. First hearing of the event, Hunt noted, “my whole being rejoiced...when the call was issued for the first national convention in my own State.”[20] Along with several other local women’s rights activists, Hunt served as a member of the committee that planned the event.

Hunt attended, and often spoke, at women’s rights conventions throughout the 1850s. She became an avid lecturer, traveling around the country to speak on the causes of women’s rights, health, and education.[21] In the following decades, Hunt assisted in the formation of organizations and institutions geared towards women’s rights and education, including the New England Women’s Club and the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association.[22]

Harriot Hunt may be best remembered for her fiery petitions addressed to the Boston Tax Assessors’ Office. While she always recognized and often discussed the many injustices women faced, it appears Hunt’s anti-immigrant and nativist views propelled her to making this type of protest. In her autobiography, Hunt recalled visiting the Assessors’ office in 1851 to amend her bill. There she saw a young Irish man confirm his American citizenship and thereby obtain the ability to vote. In response, Hunt considered, “I a Bostonian by birth, education, and life, paying taxes without representation... It would be worthy while to know how many American women of mature age are every year thus insulted.”[23]

In response, Hunt wrote the first of her yearly petitions. The first paragraph read:

“Harriot K. Hunt, physician, a native and resident of the city of Boston, and for many years a tax-payer therein, in making payment of her city taxes for the coming year, begs leave to protest against the injustice and inequality of levying taxes upon women, and at the same time refusing them any voice or vote in the imposition and expenditure of the same.”[24]

In her petitions, Hunt drew connections between women’s rights and the American Revolution, often using the revolution-era phrase, “taxation without representation is tyranny.” While the founding fathers “took up arms” to achieve liberty, she said of women: “Our weapons are the word and the pen.”[25]

Harriot Hunt gained notoriety when newspapers began publishing her petitions. Hunt remarked that responses were “full of spite and slang, and indicating an utter ignorance of the motives, and a misconception of the aims of the women engaged in this reform, and a perfect caricature of the effects upon society at large and woman in particular.”[26] Neither these criticisms, nor the lack of response from the government, deterred her from her continuing to write petitions every year for at least twenty-five years.[27]

Harriot Kezia Hunt’s professional career and her activism worked hand-in-hand; her role as a female physician challenged gender expectations, while her activism pushed for more rights and opportunities for girls and women. A letter to the editor in The Liberator, highlights the connections between the two most important aspects of Hunt’s life:

“She was one of the very first pioneers in the Woman movement...and has, by her application, perseverance and faith, outlived opposition, conquered prejudice, and won an honorable name and competence in her profession.”[28]

Contributed by: Kaitlin Woods, SCA Public Historian  


Footnotes:

[1] Harriot K. Hunt, Glances and Glimpses; or, Fifty years social, including twenty years professional life (Boston: J.P. Jewett & Co., 1856), 110. Accessed September 2020, https://collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-55631380R-bk.

[2] Myra C. Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-century Physician and Woman's Rights Advocate, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), 30; Jackie Mansky, “The Medical Practitioner Who Paved the Way for Women Doctors in America,” Smithsonian Magazine (November 7, 2017), accessed September 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/woman-who-paved-way-female-physicians-america-180967104/.

[3] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 112-113.

[4] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 121.

[5] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 42; Women and Work: The Labors of Self-Fashioning, eds. Christine Leiren Mower and Susanne Weil, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 102.

[6] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 156.

[7] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 32.

[8] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 42; Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 157; Women and Work, 102-104.

[9] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 167; Mansky, “The Medical Practitioner Who Paved the Way for Women Doctors in America.”

[10] Published in 1856, Glances and Glimpses; or, Fifty years social, including twenty years professional life serves as the first autobiography written by a female physician. See Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt (pgs. 2-4) for more information.

[11] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 170.

[12] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 218.

[13] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 219; Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 55.

[14] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 270.

[15] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 272.

[16] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 1; "Harriot K. Hunt, M.D.” The Woman’s Journal, January 9, 1875, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

[17] “Woman’s Rights Convention,” The Una Vol. 1, no. 9 (September, 1853).

[18] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 249.

[19] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 74.

[20] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 249-250.

[21] Glenn, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt, 2.

[22] According to The Woman’s Journal, Harriot Hunt served as a Vice President for MWSA for four years, from 1870-1873. For references to Hunt’s activities in the women’s rights movement, see Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: A General; Political, Legal and Legislative History from 1774 to 1881 (United States: Roberts Brothers, 1881).

[23] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 293.

[24] Harriot K. Hunt, “Protest,” The Una Vol 1, no. 2 (March 1853).

[25] Harriot K. Hunt, “1855 Petition,” (December 1, 1855), as printed in Glances and Glimpses, 369-370.

[26] Hunt, Glances and Glimpses, 342.

[27] "Harriot K. Hunt, M.D.” The Woman’s Journal, January 9, 1875.

[28] “Dr. Harriot K. Hunt,” The Liberator, September 30, 1859.

Boston National Historical Park

Last updated: November 10, 2021