Harriet Jemima Winifred Clisby 1830 – 1931

Harriet Jemima Winifred ClisbyHarriet Jemima Winifred Clisby 1830 – 1931 was an English woman who immigrated to America and was the founder and first President the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union (WEIU) of Boston in 1877.

She graduated from Clemence Lozier‘s New York Homeopathic Medical College and was a close friend of Louisa May Alcott, Professor James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry Ward Beecher and Julia Ward Howe. Many homeopaths and homeopathic supporters were members of the WEIU, including Mary Rice Livermore, Sarah Adamson Dolley, Mary Safford Blake, Arvilla B Haynes, Mercy B Jackson, Edna Dow Cheney, Abby May, Abby Diaz and Amelia Earhart.

physician and feminist, was born on 31 August 1830 in St James’s, London, ‘very near the Palace’, daughter of George Clisby, corn merchant. Her father tired of business and, as a salesman, secured free passages for himself, his wife and three children, and arrived at South Australia in the Rajasthan in November 1838. Ninety years later in her first press interview she recalled vivid memories of the five months adventurous voyage, and of the new town of Adelaide, then only a collection of huts and tents.

Her father acquired land in King William Street but after three years took his family by bullock dray to the Inman valley. Carpenters went ahead and built ‘a shanty of eucalyptus bark’, open at one end for light and air. There they did a little farming, and Harriet tended the animals, went possum hunting, and, in her own words, ‘brought herself up’.

About 1845 the family returned to Adelaide, where it was hoped Harriet ‘would become a lady’. In 1847 with her father and two sisters she was baptized at the New Church (based on Emanuel Swedenborg). She married Henry Edward Walker at Trinity Church, Adelaide, on 25 February 1848.

With growing independence her thoughts turned to journalism and she learnt shorthand.

About 1856 Harriet went to Melbourne, where she edited the Southern Phonographic Harmonia, a magazine in shorthand ‘edited by a lady’ and printed in Melbourne from June 1857. Earlier manuscript numbers circulated ‘among those who delight in Pitman’s cabalistic symbols’. In print the magazine was said to continue to improve: ‘its tiny pages are neatly and well filled’. Its English news was sent out by Sir Isaac Pitman.

About this time Harriet, with a growing concern for social betterment, conducted a community home for the rescue of women prisoners. She collaborated with Caroline Dexter, née Harper, in January and February 1861 in publishing the two numbers of the Interpreter (Clisby was co-editor with Caroline Lynch), a monthly magazine of literature, science and art. It was the first magazine published by women in Australia, and included a medical page ‘with practical information … as to the prevention of disease and hints for its cure’.

This page seemed to indicate the Clisby influence, for she had lately read The Laws of Life, with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls (New York, 1852; London, 1859), by Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), the first woman doctor admitted to practice in England.

Stirred by a new sense of vocation, Harriet had consulted a medical friend on her suitability for this profession; he warned her of hardships but had enough faith in her qualities to tutor her in physiology and anatomy for two years.

Soon afterwards Harriet decided to pursue her chosen profession in England. There she met Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who advised against trying to break down the barrier against women in English universities and suggested training in America.

But Harriet had no funds, for the money she had left in Australia to be sent to her monthly ceased after one remittance. Her first earnings, six guineas, were for a lecture at Bristol. Through an introduction to the head surgeon she became a private nurse at Guy’s Hospital, London.

When her savings were augmented by a gift from a Spiritualist friend she went to New York and entered the Medical College and Hospital for Women founded by Dr Clemence Sophia Lozier, a homoeopathic physician and feminist.

In 1865 Harriet gained a medical diploma, and about 1871 went to Boston where she practised her profession, lectured on hygiene, and founded the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. This aimed to do for women what the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was doing for men, and stemmed from her Sunday meetings for women held during the 1870s.

The union was incorporated in 1880 with Dr Clisby as its first president but she resigned in June for health reasons and spent some time in Europe. On her return she was vice-president in 1882-89 and member of various committees, including one for undenominational spiritual and moral development.

On retirement from regular practice she settled in Geneva and there founded L’Union des Femmes. She remained physically and mentally active, keeping abreast of modern movements and giving drawing-room lectures on spiritual and medical subjects until a few years before her death in London on 30 April 1931.

For most of her life she adhered to a vegetarian diet and practiced gymnastics. At the celebration of her hundredth birthday, the Swedenborgian minister, Charles A. Hall, testified that her life had been dominated by a desire to serve, especially in the cause of women’s freedom and advancement.

Deeply religious, she believed that she had been called to her profession, and her strong personality overcame all difficulties. She was confident of a great future for women doctors because of their common sense and sympathy, but thought they would prove better as specialists.

Among her American friends she remembered especially Professor James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry Ward Beecher. Though her calling took her far afield, she counted her time in Australia among her happiest years: ‘I love Australia, I always have loved it‘.

Clisby believed that many cases of serious nervous diseases and other maladies among women of all classes originated from lack of education, as well as vital and interesting work.

The WEIU, a non-profit social and educational agency, was founded in 1877 by Dr. Harriet Clisby and incorporated in 1880,

“to increase fellowship among women and to promote the best practical methods for securing their educational, industrial, and social advancement.”

In its early years, the organization provided practical help and training programs for women, teaching them how to produce marketable goods and selling their products. Among the social services offered were legal aid for needy women, especially domestics; school lunches; and training and placement for the blind and other handicapped persons. An early Committee on Hygiene, which provided health education and free medical treatment to women, developed into the Committee on Sanitary and Industrial Conditions, which investigated working conditions in shops and industry.
The Union continued most of its original activities during subsequent years: during the 1930s and 1940s it provided employment services for college graduates, married women, and the handicapped; and the handwork and food shops continued to operate.

While some of the programs were turned over to others — the School of Salesmanship became the Prince School of Education for Store Services at Simmons College and the School Lunch Program was taken over by the Boston School Committee — new programs were begun.

One of the most successful was the Partnership Teaching Program, which placed qualified teachers who could not work full-time into partnership arrangements with one another.

In the 1950s the Union began to be concerned with the problems of the elderly, especially housing; this was later expanded to include concern for isolated persons of all ages. The Union offers a “Nursing Home Guide” as one resource to meet the former need, and Companions Unlimited serves the latter.

Clisby was an active Swedenborgian all her life.

2 thoughts on “Harriet Jemima Winifred Clisby 1830 – 1931”

  1. Alas, the sources of much of the biographical detail of Harriet Clisby’s life come from “Harriet Condon, M.D.” Shirley Darbyshire, [Ivor Nicholson and Watson Limited, London, 1936.] Much of the material is fictitious and misleading. Other sources repeat the same remarks…
    Stating that “her father tired of business as a salesman….” as the reason for the family going to South Australia in 1838 was far from the truth!
    He was in fact only too happy to make himself scarce at the expense of his mother-in-law, having failed in three successive business and being bankrupted, he had a queue of creditors in pursuit, baying for blood!
    The land in the Inman Valley on the Fleurieu Peninsula and a town acre in King William Street, Adelaide, was not his, but purchased in London by Mrs Elizabeth Warren, his mother-in-law. Many years later, the town acre was the subject of a Supreme Court trial, when George Clisby had signed a number of promissory notes on the property which was not his, but owned by his eldest daughter who was bequeathed it by her grandmother.
    In 1847 she only had one sister in Australia at the time she, her sister and father were RE-baptised as Swedenborgians. The family had long links with St James, Piccadilly.
    Harriet Clisby spent several years in Melbourne selling her services as a spiritualist and mesmerist, and claiming to have great healing powers, before she pursued her career in London & America.
    Surviving family letters prove she was manipulative, had an avaricious streak and wore ‘rose tinted glasses’ in some of her writing. Her marriage – to escape her father’s agression – was reputedly never consummated and Henry Walker died at sea in 1865.
    My grandfather, a cousin of Harriet’s communicated with her until her death.
    Sue Woods, Melbourne.

  2. Hi Sue

    Thanks very much for this new information, and thank you for taking the time to amend and add to the information I already had.

    It is very interesting to add some realism to ‘rose tinted’ biographies, which often powder out information, or sanitize the subject – a problem with biographies I have often noted – when the real flesh and blood person is just so much more interesting!

    The past comes alive when we realise these were indeed, real people, leading real and often quite difficult lives!

    Sue

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