Needham History: Healing Runs in the Family

Unselfish devotion… Unusual skill and perseverance…

Dr. Mary Hobart, circa 1910. (Library of Congress photo)

Healing Runs in the Family

People frequently ask where I get my ideas for these weekly topics. I do keep a list of things that interest me or about which I have done prior research. But sometimes, the topics arrive unexpectedly on my doorstep. Or, in this case, in my Inbox.

The question was from the former owner of a house on Hunnewell Street – did I know anything about the female doctor who once lived there? The former owner was able to supply a name – Dr. Mary Hobart. Not only did I not know anything about Dr. Hobart, but I had never even heard her name before. In this I was quite remiss, because it turns out that Dr. Mary Hobart was worth hearing about.

Mary Hobart was born in Boston in 1851. She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children in 1884. The Women’s Medical College had been founded in 1857 by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to obtain an MD degree in the United States. Dr. Hobart continued her medical training in Vienna, Zurich, and Paris. In 1886, she moved to Boston to specializing in Obstetrics at the New England Hospital for Women and Children (now called The Dimock Community Health Center) in Egleston Square, in Roxbury.

The New England Hospital was a unique institution – founded in 1862 by women for women’s medical needs, and staffed only by female doctors and administrators. In 1865 the Hospital hired Dr. Anita Tyng as the first woman to specialize in Surgery at an American hospital; she was succeeded as Chief of surgery by Dr. Fanny Berlin, the first Jewish woman to practice surgery in the US. In 1884, Mary Hobart joined the MA Medical Society – only a week after the Society (reluctantly) voted to allow women to join.

Dr. Hobart maintained her practice for nearly 30 years, from 1886 to 1913. After retirement, she moved from Boston to Needham Heights in 1914, building the house at 90 Hunnewell Street. Having lived all her life in town, she said, she wanted now to move to the country. She became a member of the First Parish Church, and an active participant in their Women’s Alliance and the Cheerful Letter Society, which ministered to those in need. She was a skilled piano player, and enjoyed both playing and listening to music.

Mary Hobart named her house “Dodona,” after the ancient oracle of Zeus in Epirus. She called it so because of the stately “talking oaks” on her property, that reminded her of the famous oak trees at the shrine. The trees were filled with birds, which she fed and observed. In 1916, she organized the Needham Heights Bird Club. The club’s goals were to “Make better acquaintance with our native birds; to increase the number of birds in this locality by providing food, nesting boxes, and water for drinking and bathing; and the better protection of birds.” The club was open to both men and women, and the annual dues were 25 cents. The club scheduled bird-watching walks, and hosted public talks by members of the Audubon Society.

But there is more to Mary Hobart’s story – she also had a distinguished medical ancestry. Dr. Hobart was the great-great-granddaughter of Martha Ballard, the midwife and healer whose diary was published by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Midwife’s Tale (2010). Martha Ballard kept a detailed diary of her work and daily life in Hallowell, Maine from 1785 to 1812. During that time, she attended 816 births. Her diary was kept and passed down in her family. In 1884, the year she graduated from medical school, Mary’s great-aunts passed the diary into her keeping – “As the writer was a practising physician,” they noted, “it seemed only fitting that the Ballard diary, so crowded with medical interest, should descend to her.” Hobart found the diary fascinating, and read it often; it was, she noted, “a source of vital interest to her colleagues as well as to her family.”

“Dodona,” the house that Mary Hobart built on Hunnewell Street in 1914.

In 1930, as an elderly woman without daughters to pass the diary on to, and it in order to assure its safety and preservation, she gave the papers to the Maine State Library. She also wished to make the dairy “more accessible to a wider circle of antiquarian workers.” In a letter accompanying the gift, she wrote (referring to herself in the third person): “The doctor, who likes to believe that the mantle of her gifted ancestor fell on her shoulders, was born in Boston, 1851 – She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary, in 1884, and carried on her medical work in Boston until 1913, when she retired to private life and took up her residence at Needham Heights, Mass. During the thirty years of her professional life, she was associated with the New England Hospital for Women and Children of Boston.”

In addition to Martha Ballard, Mary Hobart was a relative of Clara Barton, nurse and founder of the American Red Cross. In 1882, while Mary was in medical school, Clara Barton was lobbying Congress to adopt the Treaty of Geneva, which established “the neutrality of all sanitary supplies, ambulances, surgeons, nurses, attendants, and the sick or wounded men, and their safe conduct, when they bear the sign of the organization, viz: the Red Cross.” Twenty years before, during the Civil War, Clara Barton was a battlefield nurse (and doctor and surgeon when necessary) at Fredericksburg, Harper’s Ferry, and Bull Run.

Dr. Mary Hobart passed away in 1940, at the age of 89. As her obituary records, “The outstanding characteristic of Dr. Hobart’s life was her ardent and unselfish devotion to the needs of others; and this was combined with unusual skill and perseverance in executing her helpful plans… Her strong will and queenly bearing made her a commanding personality in any position.” Mary Hobart felt keenly the connection between her own life in medicine and the healing work of Martha Ballard. But at the same time, her own work helped to forge new paths for women, moving beyond the practice of female craft and into the full training and practice of modern medicine.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see their website at
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