Just five years after the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the United States, Susan McKinney Steward 1847-1918 became the first African American woman physician in New York and only the third in the country.
She practiced homeopathic medicine in Brooklyn most of her life, before moving several times with her second husband. Steward was active in medical societies, and as an abolitionist and suffragist.
Susan Maria Smith was the seventh of ten children born to Sylvanus and Anne Springsteel Smith. She was a mix of European, African and Shinnecock Indian heritage. Prosperous pork merchants, her parents were civically active and socialized among the elite of Brooklyn’s Black community.
In an era when ladies either stayed at home as wives and mothers, or became teachers, Susan flaunted gender and racial stereotypes — and the prevailing opinion that medicine was the domain of men — to become the first African-American female doctor in New York, and the third in the nation. (Her two predecessors were Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who graduated from the New England Female Medical College in 1864, and Rebecca Cole, who graduated from the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia in 1867.) At that time, men openly taunted women who attempted to become doctors and the general public considered female physicians ‘unsexed.’
Why did Susan choose this path? Probably her shock at the untimely deaths of two brothers during the Civil War and the New York cholera epidemic of 1866. Susan nursed a sick neice during this epidemic that killed over 1,100 people. The experience must have stirred her compassion and her resolve to help people. She must have also had a great deal of pride and determination to strive beyond the expected limitations of black women at that time.
The New York Medical College for Women opened in November 1863, founded by Clemence Sophia Harned Lozier, a wealthy abolitionist. Susan became a close friend of Clemence, who also was Susan’s mentor, and remained so until Clarence’s death in 1888. This was a homeopathic medical school; homeopathy is a type of treatment that contains some of the same germs that makes a person ill.
Susan was selected by fellow students and faculty to be the 1870 class valedictorian. She earned this honor by studying at all hours, especially when her classmates slept. She also refused to let the taunting of male medical students during shared clinic hours at Bellevue Hospital deter her. Despite her achievement, New York newspapers did not print her valedictory. The one paper that did mention it, the Courier, only wrote about her hair and clothing — expressing hope that her “modest attire” was a “good sign of the improvement of the African race.”
After graduation, Susan established her medical practice in her Brooklyn home. It was slow to start, but soon word spread about her skill. Her patients grew more diverse: young and old, Black and white, poor and rich. Her patients affectionately called her “Dr. Susan.” Her modesty, strong will and compassion became widely known. She later opened an office in Manhattan.
On July 12, 1871, Susan married William G. McKinney, a travelling preacher, and they had two children, William S. McKinney (who became a clergyman with the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York) and Anna M. McKinney Carty (who became a New York City school teacher and married M. Louis Holly).
Susan was active in the Kings County Homeopathic Medical Society and the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. Before the latter society, she presented two important medical papers in 1883 and 1886. The first was about a pregnant woman who was contaminated after sharing a bed with her mother, whom she was directed by a physician to treat twice daily for burns with a carbolic acid solution. Susan isolated and treated the woman, but the patient dismissed Susan after the symptoms disappeared. A few days later, the woman gave birth, but died soon after, and the baby died the next day. Susan’s second paper was about marasmus (a wasting away of the body from chronic vomiting, diarrhea, worms and inherited syphilis) in infants. She believed recovery was better through homeopathic treatment. Childhood diseases became Dr. Susan’s specialty.
Despite her full medical practice and surgical rounds at the Brooklyn Women’s Homeopathic Hospital and Dispensary (which she co-founded), Susan also attended seniors at the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People and founded the Women’s Hospital and Dispensary (later renamed the Memorial Hospital for Women and Children) in 1881, the Women’s Local Union of New York (a leading black women’s club), and the Equal Suffrage League of Brooklyn. She was active in Bridge Street’s missionary work and was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Number 6. She was also a prolific writer of sacred and secular materials.
William died in 1892 and on November 26, 1896, Susan married Theophilus Gould Steward, chaplain of the 25th U.S. Colored Infantry, known as the Buffalo Soldiers (see also). She would accompany him to forts in Montana and other western states, treating the sick and injured soldiers, until he retired in 1907.
Later, they both joined the faculty of Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1909, they vacationed in Europe, then returned again in 1911, when Susan presented a paper, “Colored American Women,” before the First Universal Race Congress in London. In 1914, she presented another paper, “Women in Medicine,” to the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in Wilberforce.
She wrote: “Fortunate are the men who marry these [black physician] women from an economic standpoint … They are blessed in a three-fold measure … [taking] unto themselves a wife, a trained nurse, and a doctor. … [I caution such women] to avoid becoming unevenly yoked … such a companion will prove to be a millstone hanged around her neck.” Most black women doctors at that time married educators, ministers or doctors.
And, like Susan, they founded community health care institutions, trained nurses, educated people on proper sanitation and hygiene, and founded service agencies to help the poor and oppressed, both black and white. But unfortunately, their need in society became overshadowed — probably when medicine became more scientific and white male-dominated — thus significantly reducing the number of black women doctors by the 1920s. Many focused on nursing after that. As a whole, these self-reliant, determined women were adept at handling their multiple roles of physician, wife, mother, daughter and community leader.
On March 7, 1918, at the age of 71, Susan passed away. At her funeral, W.E.B. DuBois delivered the eulogy, and she was buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery with a monument to her achievements. Her grandson, William S. McKinney, Jr., persistently prompted the New York City Board of Education to rename a Brooklyn school the Dr. Susan Smith McKinney Junior High School in 1975. Later, the Susan Smith McKinney Steward Medical Society was founded by African-American women doctors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.