Dr. Seraph Frissell

A medical pioneer for women, prevention


Dr. Seraph Frissell dared to go where few women did in her day - not only did she earn a college degree, but she went on to become a physician, specializing in diseases of women and children, and was a prolific medical writer. She was the first woman in western Massachusetts to be admitted to any district medical society, when she was admitted to the Hampden Medical Society in 1885. She was the fourth woman to be admitted a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Born in the town of Peru on Aug. 20, 1840, Frissell was the third child of six of Augustus Caesar and Laura Mack (Emmons) Frissell. According to the book, "A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-Seventy Biographical Sketched accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life," Frissell's father died when she was 11, and she went to live with an aunt in western New York, "during which time she decided she would rather earn her own living, if possible, rather than be dependent on relatives." She returned to Peru and, for the next 18 months, spent her time in school and helping a neighbor, which allowed her to earn some money for clothing.

When she was 15, her oldest sister began working in a woolen mill, and Frissell soon joined her, dividing her time between school and the mill for six years. She saved enough money to continue her education and, in 1861, entered Mount Holyoke Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), where she remained for a year. She taught for a year, returning to the seminary for another year of studies. After four more years of teaching, she resumed her studies in the fall of 1861 and received her diploma from the seminar in July 1869.

Frissell spent the next three years teaching, and thinking about studying medicine. She entered the University of Michigan in 1872 and received her medical diploma from its Department of Medicine and Surgery on March 24, 1875.

Frissell opened her practice in September 1876 in Pittsfield, where for eight years she did pioneer work as a woman physician. In 1884, she moved her practice to Springfield.

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In 1896, Frissell took a course in electrotherapeutics, and was the medical examiner for the Berkshire Life Insurance Co. From 1890 to 1891, she was resident physician and lecturer on physiology and hygiene at Mount Holyoke College.

Frissell was the author of several papers. She presented before the American Medical Association a paper on the treatment of diphtheria without alcohol, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 13, 1897. She also wrote papers on "Tobacco," "Contents of a Teapot," "Why I'm a Temperance Doctor," "Hygiene: Why it should be taught in our Public Schools," "Prevention better than Cure," "Colonial Flags and the Evolution of the Stars and Stripes," also "Pioneer Women in Medicine."

A member of the temperance movement, Frissell, according to the authors of "A Woman of the Century," attributed part of her personal success as a physician "to not prescribing alcohol stimulants." She was the first president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in Springfield

She died in 1915, and was buried in the Peru Center Cemetery.

— Margaret Button, The Berkshire Eagle


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