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Aunt Mary Ann | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Aunt Mary Ann: Wisconsin's First Doctor

Respected Healer in Prairie du Chien

Aunt Mary Ann | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeDisplay of 18th and 19th century English medicine bottles.

Medicine Bottles

Display of 18th and 19th century English medicine bottles. View the original source document: WHI 5490

Wisconsin's first doctor was Mary Ann Menard, a Black woman called Aunt Mary Ann by her Prairie du Chien patients. Born Mary Ann Labuche near Cahokia, Illinois, she came to Wisconsin near the close of the 18th century from the St. Louis area. Aunt Mary Ann Menard was a respected midwife and herbal healer among the inhabitants of Prairie du Chein.  

Knowledge of the Healing Art

According to her her neighbor James Lockwood (1793-1857), Aunt Mary Ann was "the only person pretending to a knowledge of the healing art. Until a fort was erected at Prairie du Chien [in 1816], and a surgeon arrived there with the troops, she was sent for by the sick and attended them as regularly as a physician, and charged fees therefor, giving them, as she expressed it, 'device and yarb drink.'" At the time, there was no doctor anywhere in Wisconsin, and the nearest medical assistance other than Aunt Mary Ann was hundreds of miles east at Mackinac or south at St. Louis.

Continuing Practice

"She was an excellent nurse," Lockwood continued, "and even after there were regular surgeons of the army stationed at Fort Crawford, Mary Ann continued to practice among the inhabitants ... [F]requently after the army physician had attended a patient a long time, who perhaps for want of good nursing could not be cured, Mary Ann would take the patient home with her, and by the force of good nursing and 'yarb drink' restore him to health, so that we frequently joked the physician about Mary Ann's superior skill in the healing art."

An Extreme Test

Her skills were put to an extreme test on June 26, 1827, when her infant granddaughter, Louisa Gagnier, was injured during the 1827 Winnebago War. According to local informants, Mary Ann covered the child's exposed brain with a silver piece and the skin healed. Louisa Gagnier Cherrier went on to marry twice, had thirteen children, and lived to age 80 spending her entire life in the Prairie du Chien area.

Unfortunately, little is known of Aunt Mary Ann's final years, though her many descendants lived on in Prairie du Chien into the 20th century.

Sources

 

Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. II (1856), p. 125-126.

History of Crawford and Richland Countie, Wisconsin, p. 423

Baraboo Daily News (Baraboo, Wis.), Mon. Dec 28, 1925, p. 7.

Learn More

See more about Aunt Mary Ann.