Monday, April 9, 2012

Zombie Marie Curie!

So we have a blog... Now what?

Congratulations! You've found the very official website of the Martha Hughes Cannon Society.

Now what?

The women at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society have done a fantastic job networking; they have an engaging blog that is brilliant, helpful, and perhaps most importantly, not so highly trafficked as to be overwhelming just to keep up with it. It stands to reason-- lawyers do advocacy for a living, after all.

Something the JRCLS does well is just tell stories. Stories about women who are longtime established professionals with years under their belts, stories about women on family hiatus, stories about young women just entering the profession and discovering for the first time the difficulties of balancing career and cultural expectations.

Stories have a way of giving us a little mental hook to hang our own experiences on. For someone who's struggling to make or to live with complicated decisions, hearing someone else's experiences can be immensely helpful.

We already have a couple of biographies of prominent pioneer women doctors. We're interested in hearing your story as well, or that of a pioneer, an ancestor, a mentor, or any woman in science who's helped you on your way.

And if you're an active professional in the Intermountain West (or just plain lucky), you may already be involved in promoting science paths for LDS women-- in which case, great work! We'd love to hear about it!

Please contact Sarah Kendall Taber at sartaber [at] ufl [dot] edu.

Goals of the Martha Hughes Cannon Society

What the Martha Hughes Cannon Society is:

A professional and support network for LDS women in science, technology, engineering, medicine, and mathematics. We hope to be able to share our experience in getting higher education and choosing career paths, provide a network where women can find supportive peers and mentors, and help each other work through that whole work-life balance situation.

We remind LDS church members everywhere that professional women are not some kind of departure or abandonment of our faith, our people, and our history— we have been the bedrock of it since day one.

What the Martha Hughes Cannon Society is not:

A pack of people who are going to tell you how to live your life, and judge you if you don’t do it the same way we did. We’re not here to prescribe to you exactly how to balance career and family obligations. We’re here to help you get the best results from your choices.

If you’re a student thinking about going on in the sciences, trying to date and get an education at the same time, juggling a career and children or a dual-career situation, want to keep a professional network while taking a break from the working world, rebuilding after a divorce or other major life change, or if you’re an empty-nester wondering what’s next, we’re all over it. Welcome to the MHCS.

LDS Women in Science Biography Series: an introduction

While an undergrad at BYU, I learned about many of the accomplished and influential women in Mormon history: Emmeline B. Wells, Louisa Lula Greene Richards, Susa Young Gates, Minerva Teichert, and a whole passel of ladies named Zinah that I never could keep straight. These women are celebrated in our history for their cultural, societal, and artistic accomplishments: they were opinionated writers, economic leaders, poets, and held high positions of leadership in the church.

At the same time, I had also heard rumors that there had been women doctors in the pioneer era. However, nobody ever seemed to have much to say about them other than that they’d existed. There’s a shortage of material that discusses LDS female medical and science pioneers, compared to our artists and writers. Perhaps this is because literary figures, by definition, write a lot. Leaving historical records is what they do. Conversely, doctors don’t typically write much about their day-to-day work—their patients—because that would be a serious violation of privacy and medical ethics… even if there was time left at the end of the day to kick back and write.

(Can you imagine? ‘Saw to Eliza R. Snow’s bunions today. Again. Keep counseling to wear sensible shoes but you know how some people are.’)

I’m still not sure why we haven’t taken these women more seriously in our cultural memory. However, I am sure that their lives and experiences are very relevant to LDS women today. The better-known literary women in our history often accomplished their work while raising a family. However— while editing a newspaper is undoubtedly a heavy workload— it does fit more neatly into a conventional home life than spending four to eight years thousands of miles away in a medical school and residency, then running all over town for a medical practice.

It would be easy to assume that most of these women were ‘spinster aunts’ and others who didn’t fit the family life mold. However, many if not most of them were married and had children during their schooling and career years.

How did they do that? I’m interested in learning more about these women and how they handled— in essence— the same work-life balance issues that women are still grappling with today. I suspect that much like today’s working women they relied on various combinations of family, friends, and hired help to keep their lives together. When so many people within and outside the LDS church feel that having a career is incompatible with being a “good woman,” it’s good to have our pioneer foremothers to prove these ideas dead wrong.

In honor of Sister Julie Beck’s encouragement that we learn the history of our Relief Society, LDSWIS is running a series of biographies of LDS women in science. We are also interested in profiling more recent LDS women in science. We’d very much enjoy hearing your contributions of who you’d like to see profiled here.

(Timely disclaimer: in all biographies, the editorializing comes straight out of the vaults of my own brain. It shouldn’t be construed as any kind of prescribed or consensus view among LDS women in science in general.) You can find much more thorough biographies, as well as references to primary source material, at the web and text references cited below.

There are many good biographies of Dr. Penrose available online and in text, so only highlights and some of my personal notes on her experiences will be covered here.

Dr. Penrose was the first LDS woman doctor who had lived in Utah and then returned back east to study. (Some earlier women emigrated to Utah with medical training already in hand.) She began her studies after having seven children, two of whom died in early childhood. The frustration and helplessness of watching her children die in spite of everything she did may have been behind her motivation to study medicine. The state of medicine in Utah was primitive, and despite the best efforts of extraordinary midwives and spiritual healers, mothers and small children suffered the most from the lack of medical resources. Recognizing this, Brigham Young put out a call for women to go back east, become doctors, and come back to help hold Zion together. Romania was the first to do so.

Romania obtained her medical education at great personal cost. She returned after graduating to find that her husband had married another woman in her absence without telling her first, and that her youngest two children were afraid of her because they didn’t recognize her. Rather puts student debt into perspective, doesn’t it?

Romania was able to go to school in the first place because her mother stepped in to raise her children in her absence. I think that this is important for many LDS women to realize. When achieving pioneer women are discussed in church—if they’re discussed at all—it’s often accompanied by folklore explaining that they were able to make their achievements because of polygamy. In blunt terms, many of us may have been taught they were able to engage in life outside the home because they had other wives to act as their nannies and maids. (I must suppose that all the modern time-savers have to count for something, like running water and fridges and washing machines and ovens that you don’t have to chop wood for, but everyone who’s ever given me the great-women-due-to-polygamy explanation has conveniently forgotten about that.)

The unspoken corollary is that since we don’t have extra wives to do our grunt work for us, then of course modern LDS mothers will not be following in their footsteps. This folklore eliminates professional pioneer women’s ability to serve as role models for us today.

Whether this is truly how a majority of prominent LDS pioneer women made their achievements remains to be proven or disproven by further reading into their lives. In any event, it was certainly not the case for Dr. Penrose. She remained her husband’s only wife until she had almost completed her studies. Polygamy had, at most, extremely peripheral influence her decision or ability to become a professional. Her life was pretty much like ours (except without running water).

More highlights from the life and exploits of Dr. Romania Penrose:

-Was one of the first physicians to begin specializing in a medical subfield rather than doing general medical practice. Dr. Penrose specialized in ophthalmology and performed what was probably the first cataract surgery in Utah. She didn't just learn from the best-- she invented new things.

-One of the primary drives for sending LDS women to medical school was to allow mothers a higher level of obstetric care than had been available, while still preserving physical modesty of their female patients. Romania’s branching out into other areas of medicine besides women’s health was not welcomed by many of her male colleagues and she was dogged by the ill will the (male) medical community.

-Like many of her female medical colleagues in Utah, Dr Penrose was active in the women’s suffrage movement.

-She also wrote quite a bit in the Women’s Exponent and was involved in other women’s intellectual/political institutions in Utah.

-BYU’s Penrose Hall (Heritage Halls) is named after Dr. Pratt. As it so happens, my husband lived there for a year—the experience must have affected him strongly. To this day he remains attracted to gimlet-eyed Mormon brunettes with letters after their name.


Howard, Susan W. 2007. Romania Bunnell Pratt Penrose, M.D. Available at

Waters, Christine Croft. No date listed. To Brave the World: Romania Pratt Penrose. Jared Pratt Family Association. Available at

Whitney, Orson F. 1904. Romania Bunnell Pratt (Esther Romania Salina Bunnell Pratt Penrose). History of Utah, vol. IV, pp. 600-602. George Q. Cannon & Sons Co., Publishers. Salt Lake City, Utah. Available at

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Life and Times of Martha Hughes Cannon

Martha Hughes Cannon’s biography pretty well speaks for itself. There are also a number of online sources that discuss her life in depth. So without further ado, here are a few highlights from Ms. Cannon’s life:

-Like many Mormon kids in the 1860s, she walked across the Plains to Utah with her family. Unlike many, she had already decided She Was Going to Be a Doctor When She Grew Up.

-Worked as a typesetter for the Deseret News and Women’s Exponent starting at the age of 15, and saved the income to pay for education down the road;

-Earned a B.S. in chemistry at 18;

-Went to medical school far away from home, graduating at 24;

-Earned an additional B.S. in pharmacology at 25;

-Served a residency at the brand-new Deseret Hospital from 26-29;

-Married at 27 (the fourth wife out of an eventual 86 (!) married to Angus M. Cannon);

-After an extensive education and establishing herself professionally, she had her first child at 28;

-Lived in exile for two years, from age 29-31, to avoid testifying against her husband and her obstetrics patients in polygamy trials. (And I might add that she didn’t just drift to the next state over—she went all the way to England and Switzerland, and took her infant daughter with her during her years abroad. I don’t have any specifics on what she did in her time in Europe, but I’m guessing she must have practiced medicine or taken on some other kind of work to support herself.)

-Continued to practice medicine after returning from exile, and taught nursing classes at what eventually became the University of Utah school of medicine.

-Became heavily involved in the nationwide women’s suffrage movement. Traveled to Chicago and Washington, DC with Emmeline B. Wells and other LDS suffragists to speak and testify in support of granting the vote to women.

-This is my favorite: In 1896, Martha ran for a state senate seat against (among other people) her own husband… and won. She thus became the first female state senator in the United States.

-While in office, she worked to improve social conditions. Her accomplishments include public health legislation such as establishing the state board of health, regulating the working conditions of female and child workers, and obtaining state funding for speech- and hearing-impaired students.

It’s worth noting that her medical career seems to have been instrumental in preparing her for being an effective lawmaker—she would not have had the education, experience, or moral and professional authority to do what she did without both being a mother and having run a medical practice for several years.

-Had her third child near the end of her second term in office. As the first lady state senator, one assumes this also makes her the first state senator to give birth while in office as well.

Ms. Cannon also left us with a legacy of quotable quotes, including this statement:

“Somehow I know that women who stay home all the time have the most unpleasant homes there are. You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I’ll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother.”


Julie Beck (president of the Relief Society, the LDS church's women's association) has encouraged LDS women to get to know their history better. So here's a bit of our history: Martha Hughes Cannon healed the sick, raised her kids-- in exile sometimes, even-- cracked heads at least three different ways in politics, and dealt with work/life balance issues back when there weren't even washing machines and toilets. She did important things out in the public sphere that would have been impossible without having been both a mother and a professional.

Something to think about.