Mrs. Mott "The Celebrated Female Physician"
In 1834, Elizabeth Mott, the self-described "Gifted Lady Professor of Vegetable Med-icines," published The Ladies' Medical Oracle, or Mrs. Mott's Ad-vice to Young Females, Wives and Mothers. The book explained "her system of European vegetable medicine for the cure of diseases," and advertised dozens of preparations, ointments, syrups, and powders designed to cure everything from asthma to teething to tumors. Mrs. Mott marketed both the book and the medicines from her consulting room in Historic New England's Otis House.
In the 1830s Boston was a hotbed of medical innovation. Then, as now, patients traveled to the city to consult well-known physicians who graduated from Harvard Medical School and located their offices near the Massachusetts General Hospital, which had opened in 1811. In the early nineteenth century, however, medicine was only just beginning to be based on science. Most medical practitioners still believed that human beings possessed a fixed amount of energy, or "life force." While harmony in this "life force" translated into good health, illness destroyed the balance. Traditional doctors believed that they could restore harmony in the body by releasing the "putrid" matter that caused sickness through "heroic" measures like purgatives and bloodletting.
Boston was also home to many alternative medical practitioners who sought to cure patients without poisonous drugs and strong interventions, and many of them also had offices in the vicinity of the hospital. Serious competitors in the burgeoning urban medical marketplace, they advertised their cures in local newspapers and directories and gained followings well beyond Boston. Even so, Mrs. Mott was an anomaly in the early nineteenth century, when both traditional medicine and alternative medicine were male preserves. For centuries women had administered home remedies to their sick relatives, but doctors who had graduated from professional medical training programs began to supplant such female healers. It would take decades for women to gain access to medical schools.
Elizabeth Mott located herself at the matrix of traditional women's healing and modern alternative medicine; her abilities, she argued, were the result of both a natural "gift" and careful study. For most of her career, Mrs. Mott limited her practice to women and children, arguing that "ladies ought to have their own sex attend to them" because they could talk more openly with female doctors without violating standards of morality and modesty. Describing herself as a "female professor of medical knowledge," she hoped to simplify medicine so that every patient could become "her own physician." Her system of medicine, based on "one hundred preparations principally of herbs, roots, flowers, vegetable and essential oils, gums, balsams, and simples, each of which I will take with my patients, and may be given with safety to the nursing babe, or the most aged," placed her firmly in the world of alternative medicine, or as it was disparagingly labeled, "quackery." Mrs. Mott, however, rebutted this negative view. Arguing that "there is fashion in physic," she asked, "What is quackery then, but improvement? It is that which has produced the very system now called regular."
Elizabeth and her husband, Dr. Richard Dixon Mott, were born in England; they married in 1832, when she was twenty-nine and he was thirty-four, and sailed from London to New York shortly thereafter. After several months in New York, they opened a joint practice in Boston, with Mrs. Mott treating women and children and her husband seeing men. In her early advertisements, Mrs. Mott emphasized her "private Lectures on the Ancient Systems of Prophecy" as well as her "Vegetable Remedies." But, as the Motts' reputation quickly spread (and, according to one observer, "many availed themselves of their skill") she began to market herself as a "Female Physician." In June of 1833 Harriot Kezia Hunt, who would later become the first woman to apply to Harvard Medical School and a well-known physician and women's rights advocate, consulted the Motts on behalf of her younger sister, Sarah, who had been unsuccessfully treated by many mainstream doctors. The Motts diagnosed Sarah with consumption (tuberculosis) and eventually cured her. In her 1856 memoir, Glances and Glimpses, Harriot Hunt recalled that this experience, her "first thought of woman as a physician," inspired her, and, eventually, her sister, to study medicine.
In September, 1833, the Motts signed a twenty-one year lease on the western half of the Otis House. A few months later, Richard Mott patented his "Champoo Vapour Bath" and installed one on the second floor of the house. Medicated shampoo baths were popular treatments in Europe and Asia in the early nineteenth century. Dr. Mott's version placed the patient in an India rubber tent on a platform through which steam, infused with herbs, emerged to "cover the surface of the body, when the pores are in a proper state to receive them; the applications of course differing according to the circumstances of the case." The aromatherapy treatment would be followed by a "Champoo," or massage, of the appropriate parts of the body.
Early in 1834, as their practice continued to grow, the Motts offered Harriot Hunt a position in their business room. Harriot, Sarah, and their mother all moved into the third floor of the Otis House, and the sisters began to learn medicine. In the summer of 1834, the Motts advertised their house as an establishment where "ladies who labor under diseases or infirmities" would "receive, at a minute's notice, medical assistance by night and day." It is unclear how successful this private hospital was, but in June of 1835 Mrs. Mott "unexpectedly" left for Europe. Thanking her clients for their patronage, she assured them that they would continue to be attended by her students—the Hunt sisters—in whom "she had the utmost confidence."
The Hunt family moved out of the Otis House after Mrs. Mott's departure, but they continued to see patients in the house, along with Richard Mott, until he became ill and died in September of 1835. The Hunts remained close to Dr. Mott in his final days; they witnessed his will, purchased his patent from him, and buried him in the Hunt family tomb. After his death they opened their own practice, complete with Champoo Baths, and when Mrs. Mott returned several months later, she joined them. As she announced in the local papers, "Mrs. Mott and Misses Hunt, Female Physicians,… continue to attend to all diseases incident to the Female Frame….The Patent Medicated Champoo Baths will be administered to ladies at any hour of the day." The arrangement was unsuccessful, however, in part because Harriot Hunt had begun to question the scientific basis of Mrs. Mott's medical practices. After about a year, Mrs. Mott left for New York.
It is unclear where Mrs. Mott passed the next five years, but by 1842 she had reopened her practice in the Otis House and expanded her practice to include men. For the next five years "the justly celebrated female physician of Boston," as she styled herself, visited cities around New England to see new patients and prescribe the medicines she sold, in person and by mail order, from her Otis House home and office. In 1843, for example, she was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, from March 20–23, April 17–19, and September 27–30; she also spent three days of each fall month in Lowell, Massachusetts. By 1844 she had remarried, although she continued to call herself Mrs. Mott. In 1847 she and her husband, Edward McMahon, moved across the street to 40 Cambridge Street, and in June she "informed her Patients and the Public generally" that she had "retired from travelling" and would "at all times be found at her residence." By this time, Mrs. Mott may have already been suffering from the liver disease that would lead to her death on January 28, 1848, at the age of forty-five.
Elizabeth Mott was as much an entrepreneur as a physician, and her self-aggrandizing style placed her, as Harriot Hunt observed, "on the list of quacks." But the medical approach that the Motts adopted, with its rejection of "violent applications," was, if not more scientifically grounded than traditional medicine, at least less dangerous. Mrs. Mott's advertisements made many claims for her medicines that may have been, as Hunt noted, "extravagant," but she always emphasized the fact that none of them contained the mercury or other poisonous substances that were commonly used by "regular" doctors. She was also a pioneer; her core beliefs—that medicines should be natural, that doctors needed to listen to their patients, and that women were more likely to discuss symptoms more freely with female doctors—were adopted by Harriot Hunt and, eventually, other female physicians who also believed that good medical practice should combine "sympathy" and "science."
—Susan L. Porter
NOTE: Laura Driemeyer and Tamara Porter Miller