Dr. Mary Elizabeth Blackmar, MD

The First Woman Physician in Rohnerville

The card advertisement under "New Advertisements" in the Humboldt Times, March 5, 1870, read:

Mary E. Blackmar, M.D.
Physician and Surgeon
Residence: Rohnerville
Will attend calls from other localities.
Women's Medical College.

Women's Medical College, Pennsylvania

The same issue of the paper contained a brief article on Dr. Blackmar:
"We publish today the professional card of Mary E. Blackmar, M. D. who has her residence and office at Rohnerville. Miss Blackmar is a regular graduate of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, and comes among us well recommended. We are authorized to state that it is her intention to attend at Eureka one or two days each week, and will be in town next Tuesday when anyone desiring will have an opportunity of consulting with her."

Her card appears in the next eight issues of the paper, through April 30, but not after that. The July, 1870 census of the Rohnerville area does not include her name, and she is not mentioned in any local histories, although an earlier researcher lists her as the only woman among Humboldt County pioneer physicians. A woman physician in 1870 is noteworthy, especially in remote Humboldt County.

Some perspective on Mary Blackmar, M. D. can be gleaned from the story of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in modern times. Denied admission to the better medical colleges in the eastern United States in 1847, she was eventually trained at a small, rural school and later in a hospital. Graduating in 1849, she pursued additional training in England, before returning to New York City to establish her practice. But Dr. Blackwell found herself barred from practice in the city's dispensaries and hospitals, ignored by her male colleagues, and insultingly attacked by anonymous letters. Even women were skeptical of a woman physician.

The hallmark year of 1849, the date of Dr. Blackwell's graduation from medical school, was a scant twenty-one years before Mary Blackmar appeared in Rohnerville, announcing her services as a physician to the people of the Humboldt Bay region. It seems probable that she suffered similar criticism and ridicule. It also seems likely that she possessed similar qualities of determination and courage, choosing medicine as a life's work in the face of Victorian attitudes which limited women to "proper" endeavors.

What brought Mary Blackmar to Humboldt County, and Rohnerville in particular? The answer is, of course, lost, as is all trace of Dr. Blackmar, but perhaps Rohnerville was making such a name for itself as the up-and-coming town of the Humboldt Bay region that she thought there would be a place for her among its progressive citizenry. Certainly she could fill a need in the community, and she was willing to attend calls in other localities, and visit Eureka regularly. The complete lack of information on her stay, which may have lasted no more than two months, may mean she was rejected by the community. This matters little to this history; what is significant is the position Rohnerville enjoyed over a span of about thirty years as a growing, prospering community - a likely spot for Mary Blackmar, M. D. to establish a practice.

Hillsdale College.

Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan.
Image courtesy of Hillsdale College Archives.

Paul Bower's research of alumni of Hillsdale College (rural southern Michigan) indicates that Miss Blackmar attended that college in the 1850s. Pursuing her medical degree at Women's Medical College, she chose to volunteer as a nurse during the Civil War instead of serving her year of field work at a city hospital. She was stationed at City Point in Virginia during the siege of Richmond. Her fierce dedication to the care of wounded soldiers on either side of the conflict represented the ideals of social responsibility inherent in the curriculum she studied at Hillsdale. Amid the horrors of war she served in the only wedding that took place in that occupation.

NEXT: The Eel River Jockey Club

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Dr. Blackmar was from Michigan and her education to become a physician was interrupted by the Civil War so she could serve as an Army nurse in Virginia.


Theodore Dwight Felt, physician and surgeon from Massachusetts, came to California during the gold rush to seek his fortune, but like many others, he soon realized there was little possibility of a real bonanza. News of Humboldt County brought him to the rolling hills bordering the redwood forest at a place called Goose Lake Prairie [Hydesville]. Here he took a claim, built a residence, and about 1851 established Felt's Springs (located in the Headwaters Forest Reserve), a sanatorium for the weak and infirm. As the only practicing physician in the county outside Eureka, his services were much in demand, but unlike the fly-by-night "doctors" who often followed the frontier, Dr. Felt was an able physician. In the spring of 1866, the Eel River Jockey Club, under the enthusiastic leadership of Dr. Felt and other ardent horsemen, bought a piece of land from B. F. Jameson and laid out a mile-long race track. Located along the north side of A. P. Campton's Lane [Kenmar Road] and just west of the main county road through Rohnerville, this track became the meeting place of some of California's finest horses. Rohnerville Road was also called the Eureka to Hydesville Highway.