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Pioneering women: Dr. Emma Ogden

The first practicing female physician in Minnesota just happened to be a resident of Becker County. Dr. Emma Katherine Ogden moved to the village of Detroit (now Detroit Lakes) in 1881, to open a medical practice. She continued to practice medicine in Detroit Lakes until her death in 1916. (Photo courtesy of Becker County Museum)

Of all the women who made Becker County their home during the pioneer era, perhaps none has a bigger claim to a spot in the history books than Dr. Emma Katherine Ogden — the first practicing female physician in Minnesota.

Born on Feb. 21, 1840 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to George and Eliza (Snowden) Ogden, the young Emma attended private school in Pittsburgh before applying to Dorothy Dix to become a Union Army nurse during the height of the Civil War, in 1863.  She was assigned to Dr. James King, the division surgeon of the Pennsylvania troops, and served under him for the remainder of the war, as a nurse in a Virginia sanitary camp. She also became a charter member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

After the war, Emma decided to pursue a career in medicine, attending the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated in 1876, and became the first practicing woman physician in that state. The following year, she accepted a position as a medical missionary, working for the Congregational Church in Madura, India, helping to tend to the sick during the fever plague in Sholapur.

In 1881, she moved to Minnesota, and opened a practice in the village of Detroit — now Detroit Lakes. According to Becker County Museum records, she created a bit of a stir in the community because she liked to dress like a man, wearing a white shirt, tie and jacket. During her 35 years of practicing medicine in the community, she became known for the use of allopathic medicine, which involves chemical treatment for disease and illness rather than homeopathic (home-based) remedies.

In the mid-1880s, she purchased a local pharmacy, renamed it Ogden’s Pharmacy, and hired her good friend, Emma Combacker — who happened to be the first licensed female pharmacist in Minnesota — to work with her. (The pharmacy was located where the Washington Square Mall now stands, in the approximate area of the Glik’s retail store.) She and Combacker subsequently became partners, and the druggist took over the business when Ogden sold it to her in 1887.

In September of 1888, at a convention of the Women’s Relief Corps, Ogden volunteered to go to the yellow fever districts as a nurse, citing her experience as a missionary in India and as a Union Army nurse; the offer was accepted. The following spring, the organization appointed her as a national aid officer. Later in life, she was appointed as second vice president of the Minnesota State Pharmaceutical Society; the “Northwestern Druggist” said her appointment to this post was “a tribute to her superior learning and intelligence.” 

During her years in Detroit, Dr. Ogden became a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and a charter member of the Lady Maccabees, the women’s auxiliary unit of the Knights of the Maccabees. For those who are not familiar with that organization, they were a fraternal organization formed in Ontario, Canada in 1878, who based their name, ceremonies and rituals on the Maccabees, a group of Jewish rebels who fought against the Seleucid Empire in ancient Persia. Dr. Ogden served a term as the Lady Maccabees’ commander.

Unfortunately, even the most talented physician cannot practice medicine on herself, and when Dr. Ogden came down with pneumonia in 1916, the disease proved fatal. She passed away on April 5, 1916, and her family arranged to bring her remains back to her native Pittsburgh, to be laid to rest in the Allegheny Cemetery.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454
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