Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Aunt Mary Ann: Wisconsin's First Doctor

From Slave to Healer

Aunt Mary Ann | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeDisplay of 18th and 19th century English medicine bottles.

Medicine Bottles

Display of 18th and 19th century English medicine bottles. View the original source document: WHI 5490

Wisconsin's first doctor was an African American woman known simply as Aunt Mary Ann to her Prairie du Chien patients. Her full name was Mary Ann Menard, though she had had two previous husbands before marrying Charles Menard and raised more than a dozen children from the three marriages. Near the close of the 18th century she came upriver from the vicinity of St. Louis where slaves had been imported in the 1720s. She was born of mixed parentage, which gave her an esoteric knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the healing arts.

Knowledge of the Healing Art

"She was," recalled her neighbor James Lockwood (1793-1857) "the only person pretending to a knowledge of the healing art. Until a fort was erected at Prairie du Chien [in 1816], and a surgeon arrived there with the troops, she was sent for by the sick and attended them as regularly as a physician, and charged fees therefor, giving them, as she expressed it, 'device and yarb drink.'" At the time, there was no doctor anywhere in Wisconsin, and the nearest medical assistance other than Aunt Mary Ann was hundreds of miles east at Mackinac or south at St. Louis.

Continuing Practice

"She was an excellent nurse," Lockwood continued, "and even after there were regular surgeons of the army stationed at Fort Crawford, Mary Ann continued to practice among the inhabitants ... Frequently after the army physician had attended a patient a long time, who perhaps for want of good nursing could not be cured, Mary Ann would take the patient home with her, and by the force of good nursing and 'yarb drink' restore him to health, so that we frequently joked the physician about Mary Ann's superior skill in the healing art."

An Extreme Test

Her skills were put to an extreme test on June 26, 1827, when her one-year-old granddaughter was stabbed and scalped during an Indian attack. The infant was left for dead. According to local informants, Mary Ann covered the child's exposed brain with a silver plate, the skin healed and the little girl lived to be more than 80 and raise a family of her own. Like her origins, Aunt Mary Ann's final years are shrouded in obscurity, though her many descendants lived on in Prairie du Chien into the 20th century.

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