Consuelo Clark, MD: The first Black woman licensed to practice medicine in Ohio

Cincinnati native Consuelo Clark earned an MD in 1884 from the Boston University School of Medicine. She was the only Black student at the school during the three-year course of study, though by no means the only woman. Dr. Clark returned to the Queen City after graduation; she maintained a private practice and served on the staff at the Ohio Hospital for Women and Children, a charitable institution. In 1890 Dr. Clark married William Stuart, a Black graduate of the University of Cincinnati Law School; they relocated to his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. Consuelo Clark Stewart continued to practice until her final illness in the late nineteen aughts. Her story, however, did not begin with a little girl who wanted to be a doctor.

Consuelo Clark was the daughter of Oberlin College graduate Francis Williams Clark and her husband Peter Clark, the principal of Cincinnati’s downtown Gaines Colored High school during Reconstruction. Consuelo, the youngest of three children, in was born in 1860 – around the time Abraham Lincoln captured the Republican nomination for president. Like her older siblings (a sister and a brother), Consuelo excelled in her father’s high school, graduating in 1879. Exemplifying her parent’s educational aspirations, in the fall of 1879 she enrolled at a new post-secondary institution known as the McMicken School of the Arts, a part of the emerging University of Cincinnati. (The School of the Arts would be taken under the Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum a few years later and renamed the Cincinnati Art Academy.) Miss Clark completed the full-time curriculum in the usual two years.

Yet Consuelo Clark did not pursue a career in the visual arts. Medicine turned out to be her true calling. Consuelo found her way to this profession through a happenstance that illustrates the possibilities in Cincinnati’s West End during Reconstruction. We have met Elmira Howard, a (white) Civil War widow who after her husband’s death earned an MD at the New York Medical College for Women and settled in Cincinnati in 1870. In 1875, Dr. Howard and her three children lived two doors away from the Clark family, with their three children about the same age, on Barr Street. The white doctor befriended her young Black neighbor Consuelo. One retrospective account suggested the connection came because Miss Clark was frequently unwell. While Consuelo pursued drawing, painting, and modelling in the blossoming Cincinnati Art Academy, she also privately studied medicine. Dr. Howard acted as a “preceptor” – a sort of physician’s life coach and teacher – to Miss Clark.

Based on Elmira Howard’s teaching and recommendation, Consuelo Clark applied for admission to the Boston University School of Medicine in 1881. We have seen that Dr. Howard had to travel to Europe to complete her medical education. Only fifteen years after Dr. Howard’s MD, Miss Clark had the opportunity to study in a reformed American curriculum. This new model required a college degree or equivalent examinations prior to medical studies. The school year lasted nine months for Clark, while Howard’s classes extended only five months. Instruction required three years for Clark where Howard had finished her American MD after just two. In addition to lectures and demonstrations, Clark and her fellow students gained significant clinical training in two nearby hospitals, based on European teaching practices. Formed in 1874 by the merger of the New England Female Medical College and the University’s traditional medical school, the Boston University program was among the first in the US to implement this modern approach.

In those heady days just before the end of Reconstruction in the abolitionist stronghold of Boston, the homeopathic School was open to all who qualified academically. Consuelo Clark passed her exams and gained admission in the fall of 1881. Several other women matriculated with her, though she was the only African American during her three years of study. A brief mention in the spring of 1882 remarked that she was complimented by the faculty of the Medical Department on her “high culture in art” – a particularly useful skill at a time when medical illustration depended on drawing, painting, and engraving. Consuelo graduated on schedule in 1884, when she won the class prize for highest examination scores during the three years the students were together. It was pointed out that she accomplished this distinction based on her education at the “separate” Gaines High School in Cincinnati, while the second prize went to a white son of a doctor who had graduated from Bowdoin College before entering medical school.

When Consuelo Clark returned to Cincinnati in 1884 with her MD from Boston University, she was better trained than many local white men launching practices in her hometown. Her career saw a few brief false starts – in August 1884 her father Peter Clark accompanied her to Columbus Ohio, apparently to set up practice there.[1] Before the end of the year, she returned to Cincinnati and “fitted up elegant apartments” for a solo private office. Neither of these moves culminated in a long-term location for Dr. Clark.[2] By the end of 1884, Dr. Clark had moved back into her parents’ home at 58 Sherman Avenue in the old West End. The household included her father Peter, the principal of Gaines Colored High School just a few blocks away; her mother Francis Williams Clark, a graduate of Oberlin College; and her brother Herbert and his wife Leanna (nee Young).

Consuelo Clark resumed her association with her white mentor Dr. Elmira Howard (who we have met in previous writings). The life of her household changed abruptly when Pater Clark was fired from his long-time and well-paying position as Principal of Gaines Colored High School. Beginning in 1886 or 1887, daughter Consuelo closed her own office.  Dr. Howard again took Dr. Clark under her wing; the young, Black protégé saw private patients in Dr. Howard’s establishment at Ninth and Vine downtown.[3] In the dozen years since Dr. Howard had established her practice, the topography for women in medicine in Cincinnati had changed immensely. A full-column newspaper article in 1886 described the growing community of about a dozen women in our city with MDs.[4] (The article could not resist calling these professional women a “pleasant coterie.”) Dr. Clark entered not only the community but also the institutions of women’s medical practice.

Evidence for Consuelo Clark’s practice comes from brief mentions in the weekly columns about Blacks in local white newspapers, and in the weekly columns on Cincinnati in Black newspapers from other cities. Most immediately and spectacularly, Dr Clark saved Miss Leontine Troy after two experienced male doctors failed to revive her in 1885.[5] (Miss Troy had accidentally swallowed chloroform she was putting into her tooth.) An even briefer story, that Consuelo Clark attended Mrs. Ella Woodson who “recovered from her attack,” came a few years later.[6] What disease Dr. Clark defeated is not mentioned. In a much more personal case in 1889, Consuelo’s father Peter fell ill in St. Louis, and she hurried to that city to restore him to good health.[7] (When Francis Clark, Peter’s wife and Consuelo’s mother, became ill in St. Louis a few years later, she moved to Consuelo’s home in Youngstown for her final care – but that is part of a different story.)

We have seen elsewhere that Cincinnati homeopathic women MDs Ellen Kirk and Mary Howells, in addition to their individual private practices, had opened a free dispensary (of advice and medications) in the old West End in 1877. The dispensary was funded by philanthropic women of the Queen City; it was governed by a board of women trustees and staffed by volunteer women doctors. In the early 1880s, those trustees raised additional funds and rented a large house on Ninth St. between Baymiller and Freeman downtown, just a few blocks west of the office Dr. Elmira Howard shared with Dr. Consuelo Clark. The dispensary reincorporated in 1881 in a filing by eight women as the Ohio Hospital for Women and Children; it continued as a completely women-run institution. While the hospital did have a few private rooms for paying patients, the larger women’s and children’s wards provided doctors’ care, nursing staff, beds, and nutritious food – all free of charge. At any given time about half-a-dozen women MDs served in regular rotations.

In about 1888 the Ohio Hospital moved into larger quarters on W Seventh St. near Mound in the old West End. The house was purchased for $20,000 – a considerable sum that promised more permanence than the rented accommodation on Ninth. Dr. Howard and Dr Clark both came on the staff of the Ohio Hospital no later than the time of this move. One newspaper article referred to “Dr. Consuelo Clark, the physician in charge of the hospital” although it is not clear whether she acted as the resident physician or was simply in charge during the shift that evening.[8] A second article referred to her as “one of the attending physicians” at the hospital.[9]

The Ohio Hospital for Women and Children explicitly served two main purposes. On the one hand, it provided a safe space for women to come as patients, to be treated by physicians of their own sex. On the other hand, it provided a clinical setting for women with new MDs to gain clinical experience under the supervision of more experienced practitioners. This community of otherwise white women, themselves outsiders in the larger medical world, embraced their Black sister.

We have seen that the lively women’s art and cultural community embraced Dr. Elmira Howard. We will turn next to the ways in which the rich and vibrant Black artistic and cultural community embraced Dr. Consuelo Clark.

For related information, see Women Doctors in Walnut Hills and African American Medical Pracctice.

[1] “Columbus”, Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 August 1884, p. 2; “State News Items,” Eaton Democrat, 14 August 1884, p. 1.

[2] Jan 4 1885 OCC fitted up elegant apartments” at Elm and 9th, at the time numbered 138 Ninth.

[3] The Williams Directory for 1885 listed Clark’s office as on Ninth Street. In 1886 it included only her (parents’) home address.

[4] “Medical Maids. Cincinnati’s Women Physicians,” Cincinnati Post, 14 August 1886, p. 3

[5] Our Colored Citizens, 1 Nov 1885

[6] 1888-02-26

[7] Items on the Wing, 9 Feb 1889, p. 16

[8] “Hospital Suicide” Cincinnati Post 12 March 12, 1890, p. 1 said Consuelo Clark was the attending physician.

[9] Her wedding announcement in the announcement Enquirer May 4, 1890, noted her resignation from that position.