Women of Note
in
New Orleans History
Dr. Elizabeth Magnus Cohen, pictured above, was the first women who practiced medicine in Louisiana (and one of the first in the South).  She cared for the people of New Orleans' French Quarter from 1857 to 1887, a time when Yellow Fever, Typhoid and Smallpox regularly ravaged the population.  She was considered a leading surgeon in the city and claimed never to have lost a patient on the operating table.  She died in 1921 at the age of 101.

Elizabeth Lyle Saxon, born 1832, and Caroline E. Merrick, born 1825, worked together as pioneer suffragists and social reformers who were known nation-wide.  At the 1879 LA Constitutional Convention, Saxon and Merrick petitioned delegates to give all women the right to vote.  It was the first time women spoke before a state body on behalf of women's rights and can be considered the start of the women's movement in Louisiana.  They spoke before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage and they toured the country with Susan B. Anthony to advance the movement.  All the while, they continued involving themselves in social and civic activism in New Orleans.  Elizabeth Saxon was, also, a poet and author and the grandmother of noted New Orleans writer and architectural preservationist, Lyle Saxon.
Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, pictured above, who wrote under the nom de plume Pearl Rivers, was a poet, columnist, newspaper editor and publisher.  Born in Mississippi in 1843, she moved to New Orleans as a young woman and was the first woman in Louisiana to earn a living writing for a newspaper and the first woman owner of a major newspaper.  Upon inheriting the Daily Picayune, she helped save it from failing and turned it into a successful venture.  She was a social advocate for education, children's health and against cruelty to animals.

Justine Fervin Couvent, known as la Veuve Couvent (the Widow Couvent), was a former slave, born in Africa in the 1750's.  She became a benefactress of education and orphans.  She founded a school in New Orleans for orphans of free people of color - an institution unique at the time of its establishment - and left her considerable estate to the school upon her death in 1837.  The school survived for many years.

Margaret Gaffney Haughery was born in Ireland in 1814.  She lost her husband and baby to Yellow Fever not long after arriving in New Orleans.  The businesses she established in the city became successful and she used the proceeds from and the products of her dairy and bakery to provide for people in need.  During the Yellow Fever epidemics, she went from house to house, without regard to race or religion, nursing and consoling the victims.  She ultimately supported as many as seven orphanages.  She left her estate to the orphanages of New Orleans.  She was the first woman in the U.S. to have a statue erected in her honor.

Dr. Linda Coleman was the first woman to graduate from Tulane University's Medical School in 1917, becoming the first woman to graduate from a medical school in Louisiana.  Fannie R. Glover, in 1911, was the first woman to graduate from a New Orleans nursing school.  Eliza Rudolph was the first licensed woman pharmacist in Louisiana; in 1882, she was the first woman accepted into the state pharmaceutical association.
Sophie Bell Wright, pictured above, was one of the most important educators, civic leaders and social reformers of her time.  She established educational programs for women and the poor, she worked tirelessly on behalf of Yellow Fever victims, terminally ill patients and prison reform efforts; and she was responsible for the establishment of many of the city's first playgrounds.  Ms. Wright was a recipient of the Daily Picayune's Loving Cup award and, in 1912, she became the first living New Orleanian to have a school named after her - the first girls' high school in the city.  The school remains open today.

Eleanor Laura McMain was internationally known for her work in the settlement house movement.  She was instrumental in shaping Kingsley House - which remains a vital part of the community today - into a model of excellence in the field of social work.  Ms. McMain gained fame as one of the preeminent social workers in the U.S.  She helped establish the Tulane School of Social Work, which was instituted at Kingsley House in 1921 and is the fifth oldest school of social work in the country.  She taught sociology at Sophie Newcomb College and, in 1923, was chosen to organize a settlement house, the l'Acceuil Franco-American, in Paris.  She was awarded the Picayune's Loving Cup in 1920 and a New Orleans public school was named in her honor.  The school remains open today.

Louise Simon Davis founded the Magnolia School in 1935, the first school for the mentally disabled in New Orleans.  She was a pioneer in education for the mentally disabled and a social activist.  She, also, founded two schools for African-American students and worked with Eleanor McMain at Kingsley House.

Nell Pomeroy O'Brien was a well-known artist and art teacher whose posters were used by the U.S. War Dept. in WWI.  She was known primarily for her portrait and flower paintings, which were exhibited all over the country.  She did volunteer work for dozens of New Orleans civic organizations.
Frances Gaudet, pictured above, was born in 1861 of African-American and Native-American heritage.  She was a nationally respected social reformer and prisoner-rights activist.  She dedicated her life to social work.  She attended court hearings and assumed responsibility for youngsters arrested for misdemeanors and worked toward their reform.  Mrs. Gaudet was the first woman to support juvenile prisoners in Louisiana and her efforts helped found the Juvenile Court.  She established the Gaudet Normal and Industrial School (later known as the Gaudet Episcopal Home) on Gentilly Road.  In 1921, Mrs. Gaudet deeded the school to the Protestant Episcopal Church.  The school is no longer open, but the endowment continues to fund St. Luke's Community Center, which still honors Mrs. Gaudet's memory.

Dr. Sara Tew Mayo was the driving force behind the establishment of the New Orleans Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children.  It was later renamed Sara Mayo Hospital.  Dr. Mayo received the Daily Picayune's Loving Cup award in 1910 (presented annually to the citizen deemed to have contributed most toward social activism and philanthropy).  The hospital remained open for many years and there is still a neighborhood health care clinic named in honor of Dr. Mayo.  I believe the old hospital on Jackson Avenue has been turned into condominiums.

Bettie Runnels was the first woman to be admitted to Tulane University and, in 1898, the first woman to receive a law degree from a Louisiana university.

Jean Gordon was appointed to be the first woman factory inspector in New Orleans in 1907 (inspections regarding child labor).  She was a noted suffragist and social activist and she was responsible, in large measure, for the passage of child labor laws in the South.
Grace Elizabeth King was a celebrated author and historian whose books on New Orleans and Louisiana history achieved national attention.  She was one of the few Southern writers of her time to achieve national recognition in both fiction and history.  Ms. KIng lectured at Newnham College, Cambridge, England during one of her trips to Europe.  She received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Tulane University and was awarded the Palmes d'Officier de l'Instruction Publique by the French government.  In 1923, she was honored for her outstanding work by the Louisiana Historical Society.  A public high school in Jefferson Parish was named in her honor.

Alice Almira Boley was born in 1890, the grandchild of a former slave.  She was a noted academic who made significant contributions to the development of Southern University.  She was an instructor at the university until 1942, as well as, Principal of the Southern University Laboratory School.  There is a hall at the school named in her honor.

Eve Butterworth Dibert was a New Orleans philanthropist and the first non-Catholic woman to receive the Merenti Medal, a papal award.  She received the Daily Picayune's Loving Cup award in 1917.  The John Dibert Tuberculosis Hospital was founded by Mrs. Dibert in memory of her husband.  She contributed over $2 million dollars to various worthy causes, including Charity Hospital, Sisters of Charity's Hope Haven, Hotel Dieu Hospital, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church and John Dibert Public School.  John Dibert Elementary School remains open today.

Marion Pfeifer Abramson was a civic leader and the founder of WYES educational TV station in New Orleans.  She was active in education and in politics and involved in many civic causes.  Abramson High School, which was named in her honor, is now a charter school.
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Sister Xavier's Herb Garden

Margaret Haugherty:  The Bread Lady of New Orleans
Sophie B. Wright School

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   In 1727, twelve Ursuline nuns arrived in New Orleans from France.  They provided badly needed medical care and established an orphanage and a school.  Since that time, the Ursuline nuns, and the other orders that followed, have been an unfailing force for good in the community.  They set a high standard for the women who would come after them - a standard of courage, leadership, perseverance and fidelity to good causes.  It was a standard that, fortunately for the city and beyond, many women throughout New Orleans' history would enthusiastically meet.
   I regret that I can't list all of the notable women in New Orleans' history, but time, space and my own imperfect research wouldn't allow for that.  I offer this incomplete list in the hopes that it will spur us all on to find out about others who have made important contributions to the city.  In no particular order:

Sister Francis Xavier Hebert was one of the twelve Ursuline nuns who came to the city in 1727.  She immediately set to work to create an herb garden.  From the Old Ursuline Convent Cookbook:  "Sister Xavier compounded the medicines for the Royal Hospital and became the first woman pharmacist in the New World.  The teas, infusions and distillates which she brewed from the herbs in her garden represented the greater part of what was available for the treatment of the sick.  In colonial times...the herb garden was vital in providing medicines...  Sister Xavier's herb garden became critically important to the lives of the people of New Orleans."