Sarah Adamson Dolley of Rochester, New York, was the first woman physician to complete a hospital internship. She was a founder of one of the first general women's medical societies, the Practitioners' Society of Rochester, New York, and the Provident Dispensary for Women and Children (an outpatient clinic for the working poor) established by the society. She was also the first president of the Women's Medical Society of New York State.
Sarah Read Adamson was born in Schuylkill Meeting, Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1829. Her father was a farmer, and owned a small village store. She was one of five children, all raised in the Quaker tradition, and she was educated at the Friends' School in Philadelphia. Her uncle Dr. Hiram Corson was a physician, and she became interested in studying medicine after finding Caspar Wistar's anatomical text in her uncle's library.
Despite some reservations about women in medicine, her uncle agreed to tutor her, and eventually became a staunch supporter of women physicians. After finishing her apprenticeship, she went on to study at the newly opened Central Medical College in Syracuse, New York, graduating in 1851. Dr. Corson and a Dr. Isaac A. Pennypacker sponsored her successful application for an internship at Blockley Hospital in Philadelphia, making her the first woman intern in America.
In 1852, having completed her internship, Sara Adamson married Dr. Lester Clinton Dolley, a professor of anatomy and surgery at Central Medical College. They had two children, although one died in childhood. She undertook further medical training in Paris from 1869 to 1870 and in 1875, attended clinics in Prague and Vienna. For the rest of her life, she lived in Rochester, where she ran a medical practice with her husband until his death in 1872.
Dr. Dolley chronicled her fifty-year career as a physician, wife, mother, and widow in forty-years' worth of letters to her son, Dr. Charles Sumner Dolley. Her vivid correspondence documents her success in creating a solo practice after the death of her practice partnerher husband. They also reveal her anguish over how to support her son, pay for his education (he, too, became a physician), and how to overcome the resistance of her male colleagues. But her letters reveal that in her rise to success, nothing was easy, especially without a role model to guide her.
Dr. Dolley was equally active in political life and community service. She was a co-founder of the Rochester Chapter of the American Red Cross. As a friend of Susan B. Anthony, the outspoken advocate for women's right to vote, Sarah Dolley was among those women who attempted to register to vote in the 1872 presidential election.
She served as professor of obstetrics at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania from 1873 to 1874, temporarily teaching classes for Emeline Horton Cleveland, and returned to Rochester to re-establish her practice. Benefiting from the advantages of an internship during her own training, Sarah Dolley worked to open hospital positions to women physicians who desperately needed the experience but were barred from such work. In 1886, a group of women took the initiative and opened their own dispensary for women and children, electing Dr. Dolley as its first president. They also organized the Practitioners Society, which became the Blackwell Society in 1906. On March 11, 1907, at a celebration marking Dr. Dolley's seventy-eighth birthday, the Blackwell Society helped launch Women's Medical Society of the State of New York, with Dr. Sarah Dolley as its president.