Telfair Hospital for Females

The Telfair Hospital for Females historical marker was dedicated on May 23, 2007. View the Telfair Hospital for Females historical marker listing.


 Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Dawn Hinerth as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2015.

Mary Telfair was a distinguished member of the wealthy elites living in Savannah, Georgia during the 1800s. (Figure 1)  Born in 1791 to Edward Telfair, the governor of Georgia, and Sarah Gibbons, daughter of a wealthy merchant, Mary Telfair was guaranteed a life of privilege. [i]  This elite status would allow her to cultivate an independent spirit that would thrive on the pursuit of intellectualism, and catapult her into the life of philanthropy.  She had a burning curiosity, a love of books, and delighted in new experiences. [ii]  At a time when the Enlightenment and Romantic movements were shaping the minds of the educated, Telfair too became a product of this education.  Telfair relished in the elite circle, and was known to be a vivacious conversationalist who would openly express her opinions.  This was not common or expected of women, but Telfair believed that men were just jealous of the natural female talent in the art of conversation. [iii]

Due to her inherited wealth, Telfair never felt the need to marry, which again was not common for women in the south during that time.  She loved the individualism that came with being independent and its allowance towards a life of travel and education. [iv]  It is because Mary Telfair strove for a life of educational independence, and refused to conform to the female norm of her time, that we have the Telfair Hospital for Females. (Figures 2-3) In her last will and testament she states,

My desire and request is that a thoroughly convenient Hospital of moderate dimension suited to the wants of the city of Savannah….erect a Hospital for females within Savannah on a permanent basis into which the sick and indigent females are admitted and cared for in such a manner and on such terms as may be defined and prescribed by the trustees. [v]

Along with putting in motion the building of the hospital, Telfair also left the names of the six directresses.  This act alone shows Mary as a true visionary for the future of women within society.  At this time, becoming a mother and housewife were the only destinies women were expected to follow.  It was believed that a maiden was fated to a greater chance of having both physical and emotional diseases, along with a shorter life, than that of married woman. [vi]  Interestingly, it was said that Telfair suffered from this “maidens” disease in her later years.  Since women’s sole purpose in life was to marry, they were seen as incapable of having occupations outside of the defined domestic sphere.  This led to widespread opposition to women’s education. [vii]  Telfair was among the few women of the era fighting against such gender and cultural norms, and proving women’s worth within the intellectual sphere.

Women’s Health      

During Mary Telfair’s life, attitudes toward health and sickness began to change.  Health reformers pushed for the public to take an active role and responsibility over their own health and the health of their families.  Although this movement applied to both men and women, it was women who were required to teach their children the “modern” values of health. [viii]  Due to women’s active interest in health reform, a social transformation gradually occurred in the 19th century that would spark a desire in women to achieve more of an education.  “When the middle class woman took possession of her life and the lives around her in health, she also provided herself with a platform from which to effect changes, within the family and society.” [ix]  The belief became that “only an astute mother, could raise her sons to be proper citizens of the Republic.” [x] This movement would provide women with educational opportunities outside the sphere of the home, along with introducing her to enlightenment ideas about progress and individual freedom.  The health revolution became the fundamental ingredient in the modernization of women, with regards to her social orientation, and led them to question their place in society.  It is also because of this that health reformers began to become more concerned with the state of women’s health. [xi]

Women’s bodies were considered completely different than that of males.  Physically, she was weaker, and her bones and muscles more delicate than that of men.  “The doctor’s model of female health and disease centered on the womb “in a way that seems decidedly unscientific and even obsessive.” [xii] Women’s behavior and physical form were products of their reproductive organs.  But male’s reproductive and nervous systems had no control over their behavior.  “Mentally, socially, and spiritually, she is more inferior than man.” [xiii] Her delicate internal organs determined her behavior and were susceptible to easy overexertion.  It was believed that men were dominated by their brain and women their nervous system, which is why her emotions controlled rational functions. [xiv] Medicine of this time was influenced more by social norms than by scientific knowledge.  This is why it was believed that “the Victorian woman’s ideal social characteristics of nurturance, intuitive morality, domesticity, passivity, and affection were all assumed to have a deeply rooted biological basis.” [xv] It was a way to define women and legitimize her role within domestic life. (Figure 6)

Women Practicing Medicine

During the mid-nineteenth-century women were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo.  America was seeing rapid economic growth, and the middle class began to emerge.  This allowed more women the freedom to think about a life outside the home.  One such pioneer was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who in 1849 became the first female physician to graduate from a regular medical college.  Geneva Medical College, in upstate New York, accepted her admission even though a portion of the admission board deemed women as “neither intellectually nor physically capable of completing the course of study.” [xvi] Women were seen as weak, sickly, and not mentally or physically suited for the heavy responsibilities and the incessant toil that comes with working.  Dr. Blackwell reminded the men that women were nurturers by nature, and should be cared for by doctors of their own sex.  Due to Dr. Blackwell’s efforts, more women were given a chance to become professional physicians.

Professional nursing was a common alternative for women to become active in the medical field.  After the Civil War many hospitals created programs for nurses that provided training, experience, and an inexpensive labor force. [xvii] The Telfair Hospital for Females was the first of its kind to implement a school for nurses.  The school opened in 1900, and continued operation until 1936.  Roughly 1,400 nurses graduated from this program. [xviii] (Figure 5)


[i] Charles J. Johnson, Mary Telfair: The Life and Legacy of a Nineteenth-Century Woman Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2002, Introduction.

[ii] Ibid., 116

[iii]Ibid.

[iv] Ibid., 120.

[v] Ibid., 309

[vi] Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Charles Rosenberg, “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Women and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America” The Journal of American History 60, no. 2 (Sept., 1973), pp.332-356. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/2936779 accessed May 06, 2015.

[vii] David Finkelstein, “A Women Hater and Women Healers: John Blackwood, Charles Reade, and the Victorian Women’s Medical Movement” Victorian Review 28, no.4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 330-352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20082883 accessed May 13, 2015.

[viii] Regina Markell Morantz. “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform in 19th Century America.” Journal of Social History 10, no. 4 (Summer, 1977), pp. 490-507. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/3786765 accessed April 27, 2015.

[ix] Ibid., 497.

[x] Ibid., 493.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Martha H. Verbrugge. “Women and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1, no. 4 (Summer, 1976): 960, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173245 accessed May 13, 2015.

[xiii] Rosenberg and Rosenberg, 337.

[xiv] Ibid., 334

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Borst, Charlotte G. and Kathleen W. Jones, “As Patients and Healers: The History of Women and Medicine.” OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 5 (Sept., 2005): 24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161975

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Georgia Historical Society, Telfair Hospital Nurses Alumnae Association records: 1933-1994. MS 119.

Figure 1. Mary Telfair, 1842. Portrait by Enrichetta Narducci (1842), gouache on ivory, 3 1/8″ x 2 3/4″. http://www.telfair.org/mary-telfair-2/

Figure 2. Telfair Hospital #437. William E. Wilson Photographs, 1883-1892, MS 1375-175. Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 3. Telfair Hospital #436. William E. Wilson Photographs, 1883-1892, MS 1375-174.Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 4. Map of Savannah http://www.raremaps.com/maps/medium/28552.jpg

Figure 5. Telfair Nurses 1932. Foltz Photography Studio, MS1360. Georgia Historical Society.

Figure 6. Women’s Sphere. Political cartoon from an unknown origin.

Figure 7. Former location of the Telfair Hospital for Females. In 1960 it merged with Candler General Hospital.  The hospital is now a center for senior citizens. Courtesy of Dawn Hinerth.


Further Reading

Borst, Charlotte G. and Jones, Kathleen. “As Patients and Healers: The History of Women and Medicine.” OAH Magazine of History 19, no. 5 (Sept., 2005), 23-26. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161975

Finkelstein, David. “A Women Hater and Women Healers: John Blackwood, Charles Reade, and the Victorian Women’s Medical Movement,” Victorian Review 28, no.4 (Winter, 1995), 330-352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20082883.

Johnson, Charles J. Mary Telfair: The Life and Legacy of a Nineteenth-Century Woman.(Savannah, GA: Frederic C. Beil, 2002).

Georgia Historical Society, Telfair Hospital Nurses Alumnae Association records: 1933-1994. MS 119.

Morantz, Regina Markell. “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform    in 19th Century America.” Journal of Social History 10, no. 4 (Summer, 1977), 490-507. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/3786765.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll and Rosenberg, Charles. “The Female Animal: Medical and Biological Views of Women and Her Role in Nineteenth-Century America” The Journal o American History 60, no. 2 (Sept., 1973), 332-356. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.scad.edu/stable/2936779.