Once Upon a Time

Abby Fox Rooney was female physician pioneer

This photo of Dr. Abby Fox Rooney was taken while she was practicing medicine in Quincy. | Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Aug. 19, 2018 12:01 am

In 1874, Dr. Abby Fox of rural Adams County became the first female physician to be licensed in Illinois. Twenty-six years later, only 5 percent of physicians in the United States were women.

Abby Luella Fox was born in October 1844 in Ellington Township. Her parents, Abel and Abigail, had three daughters, but they did not live long enough to see one of them become a physician.

Among the early settlers of Adams County, the Foxes lived on what was known as the Dick Farm, on North 24th Street. Abel Fox built the house.

Perhaps the pioneering spirit of her family inspired Abby Fox to carve a path for herself. After graduating from local schools, she spent a year at Lombard College in Galesburg. Lombard was founded in 1853 by the Universalist Church and admitted women equally with men. She then spent three years at the Clinton Liberal Institute of New York, also a Universalist school. She graduated from Clinton in 1864. Fox accepted a position as professor at Dean Academy in Franklin, Mass., where she taught for three years. The Dean Academy was founded in 1865 as a co-educational school.

Before and during Fox's stay on the East Coast, the field of medicine began opening to women. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States from Geneva Medical College, where her admission was considered a joke.

Seven years later, in 1857, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, her sister, Emily, and Maria Zakrzewska opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first hospital run by women and the first to offer clinical training for women. Influenced by these events, Fox pursued a medical degree. In 1873, she graduated from the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, which was founded in 1868. It was the first medical college for women, with classes taught by Blackwell and her sister, Emily, among others. The curriculum was expanded from two years, the standard in medical education, to three.

After graduation, Fox returned to Quincy and opened an office and practice of her own. One year later, she would become first female physician licensed in Illinois. In 1875, both Ellen Ingersoll of Canton and Sarah Hackett Stevenson of Chicago would follow in Fox's footsteps.

Stevenson would go on to become the first female member of the American Medical Association

Abby Fox married Dr. Michael Rooney in 1875. They had their home and office on the southwest corner of Eighth and Hampshire streets. The Rooneys had two sons: Peter, who would become a priest; and Henry, who became a physician.

Michael Rooney moved to Quincy in 1871 and became the attending physician of St. Mary Hospital, a position he held for 25 years. He also was the attending physician to all of the Catholic institutions in Quincy.

Dr. Fox Rooney became the first female physician to practice at St. Mary Hospital. She specialized in obstetrics and diseases of women and children.

Throughout her career, Dr. Fox Rooney mentored other women in her profession. Susan Jarrett studied with Dr. Fox Rooney before she attended the University of Michigan Medical College in Ann Arbor. Susan's mother, sister and Dr. Fox Rooney traveled to Michigan for her graduation in June 1900. Dr. Fox Rooney presented Dr. Jarrett with a set of four surgical instruments with tortoise-shell handles as a graduation present. Those instruments were given to the Historical Society in 1972.

Ella Patton was another female physician influenced by Dr. Fox Rooney. Dr. Patton also graduated from the Medical College of the University of Michigan. She practiced in Rockford, Ill., and in Tewksbury, Mass., before coming to Quincy. In 1890, her practice was on North Eighth Street. While in St. Louis she became ill and asked that Dr. Fox Rooney be summoned. Dr. Fox Rooney was with her when she died in 1899.

Aside from their positions at the hospital, the Drs. Rooney were members of the Adams County Medical Society. In 1895, the Society elected Dr. Fox Rooney as president. Dr. Michael Rooney was voted in as a censor the same year his wife became president.

Both Drs. Rooney were active in the state medical society as well. Though retired, Dr. Fox Rooney gave a speech at the 75th anniversary of the state society in 1925 in Quincy. This event was the last time she would be in Quincy.

Dr. Michael Rooney died in 1897 at home from a bowel obstruction. The doctor had diagnosed himself and concluded that surgery would not be successful. He was survived by his wife and their two sons. After her husband's death, Dr. Fox Rooney joined her sons and traveled to the East, where both were finishing college. Dr. Fox Rooney and son Paul returned to Quincy a year later while son Henry attended the Medical College at the University of Michigan. After graduation, he moved to California to establish his practice.

In 1904, Dr. Fox Rooney retired from her medical practice and moved to California. In Los Angeles, she joined her son Henry, who had become a successful gynecologist and obstetrician.

She also socialized with Dr. Jarrett (Mrs. Loren Seymour) who had married and moved to Los Angeles in 1903. True to form as a strong-willed individual, she lived to be 90, maintaining her own apartment until struck with a fatal disease.

Dr. Fox Rooney not only worked hard at her medical practice, she also worked hard for her community. She held close ties to the Unitarian Church and the charitable functions of that institution, giving freely of her time and resources.

Dr. Fox Rooney also became an honorary member of Friends in Council, the women's literary circle that has existed in Quincy since 1866. She possessed the pioneering spirit that brought her family to Quincy so many years ago.

Bridget Quinliven graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history from Quincy University and a Master of Arts degree in history from Western Illinois University. She is a retention adviser for the TRiO program at John Wood Community College.



"Death of Dr. M. Rooney." Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 11, 1897, p. 5. 


"Dr. Abby Fox Rooney Back Among Old Friends in Quincy For a Visit." Quincy Daily Herald, May 15, 1925, p. 4. 


Find A Grave, database and images (findagrave.com: accessed June 14, 2018), memorial page for Abby Luella Fox Rooney (Oct. 21, 1844–March 17, 1934), Find A Grave Memorial no. 149303823, citing Woodland Cemetery, Quincy, Adams County, Ill., USA; Maintained by mlmann61 (contributor 47787791).


Find A Grave, database and images (findagrave.com: accessed June 14, 2018), memorial page for Michael Rooney (Jan. 18, 1836–Sept. 10, 1897), Find A Grave Memorial no. 156368186, citing Saint Peters Cemetery, Quincy, Adams County, Ill., USA; Maintained by Downing (contributor 47086797).


"First Mass by Quincy Boys." Quincy Daily Journal, June 29, 1903, p. 7.


"Food Literature." Quincy Daily Herald, Oct. 29, 1917, p. 4.


Honoring Lombard College: A Look Back at Galesburg's Second Prairie College, 2018



Medical Standard. Vol. 17. Chicago: G.P. Engelhard & Co., 1895. "The Changing The Face of Medicine: Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell." U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015. cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_35.html


"The Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Blackwell: Medicine as a Profession for Women." ND



"To Leave Quincy Next Month." Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 18, 1897, p. 4.


New school's namesake

This updated article, previously published in 2012, is in honor of the new elementary school at 48th Street and Columbus Road named for Dr. Abby Fox Rooney.