Monday, April 9, 2012

(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

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