Dr. Annie Keeler Bailey:
Ridgefield has had more than its share of pioneering women, and among them was one of the nation’s earliest female physicians, a woman who overcame not only prejudices against women but an abusive father.
By the 1880s women doctors represented only 1 to 2% of American physicians and numbered several hundred—today, nearly half the new physicians are female. And even that was a sizable number, considering the male prejudices against women doctors. One of the most outspoken “authorities” against women studying in universities was Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke, who declared in 1874 that women seeking advanced education would develop “monstrous brains and puny bodies [and] abnormally weak digestion.”
In 1872, Dr. Alfred Stillé, the president of the American Medical Association, stated that he considered female physicians to be “monstrous productions . . . unfitted by nature” for medical practice. “Woman,” he declared, “is characterized by uncertainty of rational judgment, capriciousness of sentiment, fickleness of purpose, and indecision of action which totally unfit her for professional pursuits.”
With attitudes like those prevalent, most of the early women physicians were educated in female-only institutions.
Such was the case for Annie Keeler Bailey, a Ridgefield native who earned her medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary in 1885 and was one of the first women to practice in Connecticut.
The Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary opened in 1868, with 15 students and a faculty of nine. It was founded by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), a native of England who became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States (from Hobart College). She served as professor of hygiene, and her younger sister Emily, the third woman doctor in America, as professor of obstetrics and diseases of women. The year after the college’s opening, Elizabeth returned to England to establish a medical school in London, leaving the college in Emily’s hands.
Having graduated from the State Normal School (now Central Connecticut University) in New Britain in 1876, Annie Keeler Bailey arrived The Woman’s Medical College in 1881. The school incorporated Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell’s more modern ideas about medical education that included a four-year training period with much more extensive clinical training than had previously been required. The college, which wound up graduating 364 doctors, closed in 1899 when Cornell University promised to admit all the students attending the school.
After graduating, Dr. Bailey spent a year at New York Infirmary, which specialized in treating women and children.
She opened a practice in Danbury in May 1886. Over the years she lived in Danbury in what one observer called “a beautiful residence.” She had spent much of her childhood in Ridgefield, with her mother at the family homestead in Ridgebury. She never married.
Over her career she published a number of articles in medical journals. She was active in promoting nursing, and meetings of the Graduate Nurses’ Association of Danbury Hospital were often held at her home.
Like Dr. Blackwell and like her mother, Dr. Bailey was deeply religious. Her opinions on the power of God to heal the sick were published in the Women’s Medical Journal under the title “Faith and Works.” She also delivered addresses on non-medical religious subjects. In the 1890s she spoke at the First Congregational Church in Danbury on biblical prophesies related to missionary work in Africa, a talk that was popular enough to be turned into a book, “Prophesies Fulfilled in History: The House of Israel,” published in 1895 by the Danbury Medical Printing Company. Modern reprints of it can be purchased today. So can copies of “Prophecies in Course of Fulfillment: The House of Judah,” another address-turned-book, published in 1896. Bailey’s thoughts on religion were fairly widely quoted around the turn of the 20th century, and even appeared in The Atlanta Constitution, which called her “one of the best known woman physicians in Connecticut.”
Bailey’s mother was steeped in Ridgefield history; Emily Keeler Bailey was a daughter of Col. Nehemiah Keeler and granddaughter of Lt. Nehemiah Keeler, who fought in the Revolution and operated a famous tavern and stagecoach stop just south of Ridgebury Cemetery.
Her father, Halcyon Gilbert Bailey, was apparently a ne’er-do-well and a bit of a character. He was born just across the state line on Dingle Ridge Road in North Salem. Sometime during the 1860’s, he ran a satirical political campaign in Ridgefield, complete with posters, for the office of hayward, a colonial-era official who apprehended and impounded errant livestock, especially pigs. The office had long been discontinued. Smithsonian historian Silvio Bedini, who has a short essay on Bailey in his “Ridgefield in Review,” describes the man as “noted for his mischievous disposition.”
A Bailey “post-election” poster read: “Whereas the people of the town of Ridgefield by unanimous vote elected me Hayward of said town, and having had hurled at me in the discharge of my duty (which I will perform to the best of my ability, according to law, without fear, favor or partiality) the threats of my life — of being driven from the town, tarred and feathered and cowhided by women, I invite the following class to my house between the hours of 2 and 4 o’clock PM on the 21st of June: All law-breakers, all that wish to violate the laws, all vile epithet-users, all slanderers, all back-biters, all evil disposed persons, all thieves, all rum drinkers, all drunkards, when the following questions will be debated: 1. Can a hog grunt. 2. Does a hog wear bussels. 3 Can a hog squeal. 4 Can a duck swim, and the important question, Does a goose wear feathers. The members present will select their chairman who will decide the above important questions after which the Hayward will make a speech and invite all present to take a drink.”
Emily Keeler Bailey didn’t appreciate his carryings on and, by 1880, they were divorced. H.G. Bailey was by then living in New York City, working as a clerk in a store. He died in 1905, and is buried in the Peach Lake Cemetery in North Salem, N.Y. along with other members of his Bailey family. Emily, who died in 1907, is buried in Ridgebury Cemetery under her maiden name, along with her daughter and a son who died young.
After both her parents died, Dr. Bailey successfully petitioned the Superior Court in Bridgeport to have her name changed to Annie Keeler, saying she wanted to “free the honor of her mother’s family from the taint arising from the name of her father,” according to a story that appeared in newspapers throughout the nation. “Father,” she was quoted as saying, “was a man addicted to excessive dissipation, shocking immorality and profanity. He was a disgrace to the family.”
For whatever reason, the story also pointed out that “Dr. Bailey wears her hair short.”
Dr. Bailey died in 1927 of injuries sustained an auto accident. She is buried with her mother and brother in Ridgebury Cemetery with a monument that, despite her court-approved name change, says “Annie Keeler Bailey M.D.”
However, in its obituary, The Ridgefield Press called her Dr. Annie Keeler. “There was an abundance of floral tributes, attesting to the esteem in which Dr. Keeler was held,” The Press said in describing the funeral at the Ridgebury Congregational Church where the Rev. Hugh Shields “paid tribute to the public spirit of Dr. Keeler and to her character and medical ability.”
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