Addressing the Indiana State Medical Society in 1885, Doctor Mary Thomas reminded the gathering, “A year ago there was a lady physician appointed in the insane asylum…Today I met the Superintendant, Dr. Fletcher, and asked him if Dr. Sarah Stockton was a success in the asylum? And he said, “A complete success!” I am thankful for this, and I am glad that this asylum in Indiana has inaugurated such a grand movement.”
The appointment of Dr. Sarah Stockton to treat quote, “female ailments and afflictions” in the Central State Hospital came at the behest of Superintendent William Fletcher in 1883. The choice of a female doctor was determined by current beliefs about the connection between gynecological abnormalities and insanity, and similarly Victorian convictions about the impropriety of male doctors performing pelvic examinations on their female patients. Although both notions seem hopelessly sexist in retrospect, they were espoused by champions of women’s rights at the time. Prison reform activist Rhoda Coffin lobbied heavily for Stockton’s appointment, recalling, “I came out of that contest a full-fledged woman suffragist. If a vote was necessary before I could succeed in getting a woman physician to care for the helpless of my sex, I decided that I must have a vote.”
Sarah Stockton’s appointment was regarded as significant enough to the cause of women’s rights as to merit mention by no less prominent an advocate than Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in History of Woman Suffrage, co-edited by Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage. In a section on female doctors in Indiana, it was noted that Stockton’s, “professional labors in the hospital and general practice indicate both learning and skill.”
Born on a Tippecanoe farm in 1842, Sarah Stockton ran a boarding-house with her sister before embarking on studies at the Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia, where her doctoral dissertation explored the history of mental illness and its treatment. After five years at Central State, where her presence set a precedent for the hiring of female physicians in the hospital’s women’s department, Stockton went on to posts at Dr. Fletcher’s new sanatorium in Indianapolis, and the Indiana Reform School for Girls and Woman’s Prison, where her responsibilities extended to surgery. Returning to Central State Hospital in 1899, Dr. Stockton remained on until a year before her death, from severe heart attack, in 1924.