By Olive Tardiff
A simple tombstone in the Exeter Cemetery marks the grave of one of New Hampshire's truly remarkable women. The inscription, "Sarah Ellen Palmer/Died August, 1945", gives no hint of her achievements.
Sarah Palmer, born in Exeter, N.H., was orphaned at the age of three, when her father died of diptheria and her mother of consumption within three months of each other. Nothing is known of Sarah's early childhood, but probably she and an older sister, Annie, were raised by relatives in Exeter, since both girls graduated from Robinson Female Seminary.
Sarah completed her schooling at the Seminary in 1876, then went to Portland, Maine where she studied medicine for a time with Dr. Frederic Gerrish. From there she entered the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where she received her M.D. degree in 1880 at the age of twenty-four. She got further training at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland, then studied in France and Germany.
First Women Surgeon
In 1886, Dr. Palmer moved to Boston, where she began to specialize in diseases of women. She became the first surgeon at the New England Hospital for Women and Children and was especially successful in performing caesarian sections and hysterectomies. In recognition of her work, she was the first woman to be accepted in the Harvard Medical School Laboratory Graduate Course.
But Sarah Palmer was not content to rest on her laurels as a noted woman surgeon. She took a deep interest in literature and in classical art. She traveled extensively in Europe, and lectured annually at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on the history of art.
During the 1930's, she stayed at the home of Edward Tuck, the millionaire philanthropist who was also an Exeter native, and studied his art collection. Tuck lent Dr. Palmer his collection of photographs of the art objects he had given to the Petit Palais Musuem, a gift valued at one million francs. Sarah used these pictures in her lectures in Boston.
Sarah Palmer's interest in Exeter persisted throughout her lifetime. She returned on one occasion to lecture on the poetry of Masefield at Robinson Seminary, and frequently visited the graves of her parents and sister. A caretaker of the cemetery remembers her as a fine-looking woman, tall, slim, and straight in spite of her advancing age, who never failed to send money for the upkeep of the family plot.
In 1914, at the age of fifty-eight, Dr. Palmer was given the honor of becoming a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. She belonged to various cultural groups in Boston, and was a charter member of the Lyceum Club of London. After World War I, she served with the Army of Occupation at Coblenz, Germany, for two years. It can be assumed that she spoke German fluently.
Dr. Palmer was not the only woman doctor to make her mark in New Hampshire history. Dr. Lucinda Hall had become in 1852 the first woman to receive a medical degree from a New England school; and Dr. Ellen Wallace, in 1895, helped to found the New Hampshire Memorial Hospital for Women and Children in Concord.
But, Dr. Sarah Palmer was a woman of exceptionally broad interests, one who can be admired not only for her accomplishments in the medical field, but in culture and the arts.
From: "They Paved The Way - A History Of NH Women", Women for Women Weekly Press, 1980
Illustrations by Richard Donovan.
Reprinted by permission of the author
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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