Romania B. Pratt Penrose

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Romania Bunnell Pratt Penrose followed the urging of then LDS Church president Brigham Young to travel to the East coast of the United States and train in medicine. In the October 1873 General Conference, he said:

If some women had the privilege of studying they would make as good mathematicians as any man. We believe that women are useful not only to sweep houses, wash dishes and raise babies, but that they should study law . . . or physic . . . The time has come for women to come forth as doctors in these valleys of the mountains.[1]

Romania was born on August 8, 1839, in Washington, Indiana. She was educated while boarding at the Female Seminary in Crawfordsville, Indiana, until her mother immigrated to the Salt Lake Valley with her in 1855 (her father had died in 1849). Romania, now sixteen, taught at Brigham Young’s private school for his children. She also taught music lessons in her home.

She was nearly 20 when she married Parley P. Pratt, Jr. and bore seven children; one son lived only a few days and her only daughter died before she was two. A third death, that of a close friend, was too much for her to bear, and she determined to educate herself in medical school.

After Brigham Young’s speech, Romania sold her piano and her husband sold their home so that she could study medicine. She left her five sons in the care of her mother and traveled east by train. In New York, she helped her husband edit and proofread Parley P. Pratt’s autobiography. She enrolled in the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia and graduated with high honors in 1877. She also took classes at the Wills’ Hospital and Philadelphia Dispensary and later the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. When she exhausted her funds for her education, the Relief Society, through the encouragement of Brigham Young and the work of Eliza R. Snow, raised the needed funds. She was one of the first LDS women to earn a medical degree. She returned to Utah and opened her practice in Salt Lake. She also taught midwifery classes to Relief Society sisters free of charge.

Her education came at a cost in her family life. Although she periodically traveled home to see her family, her two younger sons did not recognize her. Her husband had been gone from their home much of the first six years of their marriage while he served as a missionary. Then in 1877, her husband married a second wife and left on a second mission. She divorced him in 1881.

She did not limit her practice to the care of women and children. She is credited with performing the first cataract surgery in Utah. In 1882, she was asked to help open the first LDS Hospital in Utah. She served on the board of directors of the hospital and as a visiting physician. Later she became a resident physician.

She married Charles William Penrose on March 11, 1886, and closed her practice in 1905 when he was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. She accompanied him when he presided over the European Mission. She served as the Utah delegate to the International Suffrage Alliance conference in Amsterdam and helped form the first European Relief Societies.

When they returned to Utah, she returned to her medical practice briefly, but retired in 1912. She died on November 9, 1932.

  1. Discourses of Brigham Young, 216–17.