Take a moment and imagine it is 1865 and you a thirteen-year old young girl. Your sister, two brothers, and you are growing up in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a populated area located across the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The outskirts of town are rural and agricultural; however, the city is highly industrious. Pennsylvania has been immersed in defending the Union in the Civil War which is nearing its end that same year in April. Your father Major Hugh B.

Murphy is a veteran and announces your family will be moving to the Dakota Territory.

I can only imagine what young Jennie was thinking. “Where is the Dakota Territory?” “What is it like there?” “Isn’t it dangerous there?” She must have contemplated leaving her friends and family behind to go live in an area which was rough and tumble and full of challenges.

The family packed-up and made the long and rugged trek west.

They arrived, settled, and Major Murphy opened a livery stable selling horses on what is now Douglas Avenue. Jennie and her siblings attended the Old Central School which was located where the Yankton Community Library now stands. While in school, she learned bookkeeping and went to work for a local lumber yard managing their ledgers.

Upon graduation, she became employed by Dr. James Buchanan where she continued using her trade. Dr. and Mrs. Buchanan saw Jennie’s intelligence and potential and they encouraged her to attend medical school. This piqued her interest and she began making plans on how to attend medical school.

Historically, women working outside of the home was rare especially in male dominated professions such as doctors and lawyers.

Women typically upheld traditional roles raising and educating their children, reading the Bible, cooking, cleaning, mending, and tending to their husbands needs. While these were standard roles for both city and country women, it was different on the frontier where Jennie lived.

The land was rugged, the climate was unforgiving, it was sparsely populated, and there was the constant fear of Indian attacks. If the family was farming and ranching the next neighbor could be miles away. Outside of attending church, selling homemade goods at a local bazaar or fair, or attending a quilting bee there was little to no contact with others. Men attended to the business in town and typically the women stayed home.

This is not to paint a picture that women in the Dakota Territory were weak because it is quite the contrary. Women helping settle the frontier were tough. They still upheld their role and duties as mothers and wives, but added arduous work, tough weather, dirt, bugs, and varmints. They became industrious and could handle a rifle when needed. Travelers to the frontier noted “…a spunky quality of the women.

In sharp contrast to the citified women with their multiple layers of petticoats, their delicate natures, and their tendency to faint, frontier and rural women lacked pretension, bustled around, cooked, canned, and generally kept the home fires burning with good cheer and good will…Frontier women remained optimistic despite evidence to the contrary. They cleaned the dust out of their houses knowing that the same task would be required the next day. They endured the wrinkled skin, the chapped hands, and the rough clothing, hoping against hope, that things would get better, the crops would improve, the fur skins yield more money, and the winter remain mild.” (Sochen) Ruralness also presented challenges when it came to illness. The remoteness of the area made it difficult to access a doctor if there was one even available. Most women became midwives and homeopathic doctors making home remedies to treat their family members and neighbors. They shared these therapies amongst each other. Due to their nurturing nature, and experiences in homeopathy it was not uncommon for women to have an interest in the medical field.

Jennie knew if she wanted to attend medical school she would have to earn and save money. A common profession for women at the time was school teaching so she took the county exam and passed. Her first assignment was the Box School, which later became Grove School, in east Yankton. Known to run a “tight ship”, Jennie was given a raise and transferred to Fishbeck No. 14 located in Utica, SD.

On January 12, 1888, the infamous “children’s blizzard” struck the Dakotas. A wise Jennie knew not to release the children from school instead keeping them safe inside the schoolhouse. Dressed in their coats, hats, and mufflers she kept the children moving playing games, singing, and writing letters. Jennie recalled “they wrote so many that we used up all the paper we had.” (Karolevitz)

The next morning Joseph Rankin rescued the children and Jennie in his sleigh. The children’s blizzard claimed the lives of at least 112 individuals mostly children who were sent home from school when the blizzard hit. Jennie’s insight to keep the children in the schoolhouse when the storm hit undoubtedly saved their lives.

Finally, Jennie had saved enough money to attend medical school. Now she was faced with the challenge of finding a medical school who accepted women.

In addition, another hurdle which existed at this time finding a hospital or clinic who allowed women to practice. It is no wonder less than 5% of all physicians in the United States were women. (Saturday Evening Post) Jennie was accepted into the Hahnemann Medical School in Chicago. The school was named after Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who founded the philosophy of homeopathy. Upon admittance, it was explained if she did not place within the top of the class there would be no place for her. She accepted this challenge and worked extremely hard in her courses (Hintgen). The intensity of the courses and undoubtedly the stress of the environment took a toll on Jennie. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis and returned home to recover. She did so quickly and returned to school.

In 1893, Jennie received her medical degree from Hahnemann and completed an internship at the temporary hospital at the Chicago’s World Fair. She returned to the Dakota’s briefly working in Gregory, SD before returning to Yankton to join practice with Dr. E.W. Murray.

Now thirty, Dr. Jennie Murphy participated in the formation of the Yankton Hospital Association in 1895. The Association converted a small home on Fourth Street west of Walnut into a small facility. Two years later the Association was involved in founding Sacred Heart Hospital.

Dr. Murphy decided she needed more training regarding diseases affecting women and children, so she traveled to New York for post graduate work.

Upon returning home, with a degree from a homeopathic institution and newly acquired training in treating diseases in women and children, she opened a private practice in Union Block (located where Riverfront Event Center now stands).

She was now ready to tackle the issues facing the women, children, and residents of Yankton.

Known to ride a bicycle about town in the warmer months, she could be seen traveling house to house treating patients and delivering babies. Among the many babies she helped into the world was Chandler Gurney, the future United States Senator. It is reported she also sewed his finger back on when it was cut off by a bicycle sprocket. (Karelovetiz).

To reach the country patients, she traveled by horse and buggy. She traveled the surrounding area making trips into Nebraska from time to time. She mended broken limbs, battled fevers, infections, and contagious diseases. She reported at times she would be exhausted from her long days in the country and would fall asleep in her horse drawn buggy. Her horses continued on the path while she slept delivering her home safely to her residence at 409 Douglas. In later years, she drove a big Cadillac and was the first women to drive a car out and about on the country roads (Hintgen).

Always marching to the beat of her own drum, Dr. Murphy’s attire was not typical for women of the time period. It is reported she wore “mannish” style clothing fashioned by local tailor Lubitz and Taylor. She tied her hair straight back in a tight bun and wore a felt hat with a long hat pin which she said, “with my hat pin and buggy whip, I’m not afraid to go anywhere.” (Karolevitz)

Dr. Murphy’s style was direct and sometimes considered “gruff” and “aloof”. Working in a male dominated profession in the wild and wooly frontier perhaps created some of her persona. She was kind and caring but tough when she needed to be. One example is a young lady who was being chased by drunk men up onto her porch. Not only did she protect the young lady, she decided to run for city commission and clean up the streets of Yankton!

In 1919, shortly after South Dakota ratified the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, she entered office as Yankton’s first female city commissioner. She won without opposition and was appointed “street commissioner”. Using her new power, she posted a blacklist in each saloon, and if any saloon owner served alcohol to any of the men on the blacklist, she would personally close the saloon. Around the time she was a city commissioner she also served as the first female county coroner.

After World War I ended, her practice became very demanding, so she hired another female physician Dr. Lottie Bigler. Eight years earlier, Dr. Murphy became the National Medical Examiner for the Degree of Honor, an insurance society. She served the society at both the state and local levels. In 1922, the same year Dr. Bigler purchased the medical practice. Over the next eighteen years, Dr. Murphy continued devoting her time and skills to the Society until her second retirement in 1940.

In retirement, she loved photography and working in her gardens. She was best known for her beautiful gladiolas. Never a person to lay idle, Dr. Murphy continued to be involved in the community and organizations such as Rebekah Lodge, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Business and Professional Women’s organization. Dr. Jennie C. Murphy passed away at Sister James Nursing Home on November 3, 1959 at the age of 94 and is buried in the Yankton cemetery.

The Dakota Territory attracted some amazing daring people here to settle the land. Dr. Jennie C. Murphy was a true pioneer woman who was kind and caring yet tough enough to endure the environment of the frontier. A woman way ahead of her time she is one of the characters who helped define this great town we call home.


First Female Doctor Ahead of her Time, “The Way it Was”

Bob Karolevitz, Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan 1996

Frontier Women: A Model for All Women? Joan Sochen 1976

Dr. Jennie Murphy, Lois Hintgen and Larry Hintgen 2014.