The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
McCowen, Jennie C.
(June 15, 1845–July 28, 1924)

–physician, writer, teacher, suffragist, and activist—was born in Warren County, Ohio, the second of five children of John and Maria (Taylor) McCowen. John was a Presbyterian widower from Maryland, Maria an Ohio-born Quaker. In the late 1840s the family moved to Havana, Illinois, where John kept a store. By 1859 John had returned to Ohio with his children: Jennie; her older brother, Israel; and her younger sisters, Mary, Susan, and Sarah (Maria had apparently died). Settling in Lebanon, John married Elizabeth Stokes and operated a drugstore. Jennie recalled her father as a "well-known physician," although he never practiced medicine as his primary occupation.

    In Lebanon, Jennie entered normal college. She often declared that, "thrown on her own resources" in 1861, she was compelled to teach school at age 16. Many biographical sketches report that her father died that year. In fact, John McCowen died on December 31, 1878. The outbreak of war may have led to conflicts between Jennie and her father, a Southerner and a Democrat. Israel enlisted in the Union army in June 1861 and died in battle three years later. In 1864 Jennie left Ohio for Audubon County, Iowa, to live near her mother's sister and to teach school.

    In 1871 McCowen became one of the first American women to run for elective office, losing the race for county school superintendent by just 15 votes. The following year, she left teaching and matriculated at the State University of Iowa, earning a medical degree in March 1876. Professor Mark Ranney invited her to join the staff of the Iowa Hospital for the Insane at Mount Pleasant, where he was superintendent. She was the third woman in the United States to serve in such a capacity.

    After almost three years at the hospital, McCowen returned to Ohio. An opportunity to enter private practice in Davenport drew her back to Iowa in 1880. There she joined the Scott County Medical Society, which immediately elected her secretary, and affiliated with the Congregational church (having left her mother's Quaker faith).

    The 1880s were a productive period in McCowen's life. She published articles in medical journals, including "The Prevention of Insanity" in the Northwestern Lancet and "Insanity in Women" in Transactions of the Iowa State Medical Society. In the latter she argued against the uterine-reflex theory of insanity, which held that women who rejected domesticity were especially vulnerable to madness. McCowen joined the Association for the Advancement of Women, a national organization that promoted women's access to jobs, education, and public life. As vice president for Iowa, McCowen wrote a landmark report, "Women in Iowa," and later published a version in the State Historical Society of Iowa's journal, the Annals of Iowa (1884). During that same period, she contributed a regular column to a national suffrage paper, the Woman's Tribune, and represented Iowa annually at the National Conference of Charities and Correction. She also served two terms as president of the county medical society (probably the first American woman to hold such an office) and a term as president of the Davenport Academy of Science.

    Her proudest accomplishments during the 1880s were helping found the Working Woman's Lend-a-Hand Club (1886) and the Charitable Alliance (1889). The Lend-a-Hand Club was an organization of self-supporting women that promoted women's education and maintained downtown rooms where members could rest, eat, and socialize. It also helped launch a number of businesses owned by women, including the Hadlai Heights Women's Hospital, run by McCowen and her longtime companion, Eliza "Lile" Bickford. The Charitable Alliance won the appointment of a police matron in Davenport—the first in Iowa.

    In the 1890s and early 1900s McCowen gave greater attention to writing and organizing on behalf of women physicians. She helped found the Iowa State Society of Medical Women, serving as its president in 1893 and 1894, and joined the editorial staff of the Pan American Women's Medical Journal.

    McCowen was also active in the King's Daughters, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and the Woman's Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic. She edited and published in two state medical journals and participated in national and international meetings on child welfare, insanity, public health, and geology.

    After Lile Bickford left Davenport in 1900, McCowen shared a home with Clara Craine, head of the Visiting Nurse Association. At McCowen's death, hundreds of mourners filed past her casket, which lay in state in the new Lend-a-Hand building. She was buried in Davenport's Oakdale Cemetery.
Sources include Sharon E. Wood, The Freedom of the Streets (1995); "Jennie McCowen, A.M., M.D.," Iowa Medical Journal 1 (1895), 531; Irving A. Watson, Physicians and Surgeons of America (1896); "Getting On in the World: Jennie McCowen," Trident 2 (1/28/1905), 28– 29; and Harry E. Downer, History of Davenport and Scott County, 2 vols. (1910).
Contributor: Sharon E. Wood

Cite as: Wood, Sharon E. "McCowen, Jennie C." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017