When I began researching Josie, there wasn’t much information about her readily available. Mostly, Google searches turned up a whole bunch of photos of Clint Eastwood and every friend I had asked “the outlaw?” when I told them who I was researching. Within the last few years more about the Doctor Josie Wells, not the Outlaw Josey Wales, has surfaced online. I am proud to say, much of that because of the research I’ve done and the podcasts, articles and the newspaper tagging I’ve done. However at beginning of my research journey I was lead astray and even repeated incorrect information about Josie. There were a couple sketches of Josie floating around that said she was the first female graduate of Meharry Medical College and the only practicing female physician in Nashville, neither of which were accurate details. I was disappointed when I learned the truth, but I realized her NOT being first didn’t make her any less of a trailblazer. Regardless if she was first, second or one hundreth, she had a unique story. AND BONUS, in finding Josie’s uniqueness, I was introduced to a couple other pretty amazing ladies.
Let’s get those inaccurate details out of the way first. First-Josie was not the first female graduate of Meharry Medical College. That honor belonged to Georgianna Patton who graduated in 1893 (eleven years before Josie.) Dr. Patton used her medical skills to help on a more global scale by becoming a missionary doctor practicing in Africa. She later returned to Tennessee and practiced medicine in Memphis. There were a dozen or so more ladies who graduated from Meharry between Dr. Patton and Josie. Second-Josie was not the only female practicing physician in Nashville when she set up shop. There were 223 practicing physicians in the Nashville City Directory in 1905. TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY-THREE!!! Most of them listed professionally only by initials, including “Wells, J. E.” Surely it was possible at least one other of those names belonged to a woman? Figuring this out would have been an arduous time consuming task. I initially had every intention of researching every single name (because I’m crazy like that,) however fate stepped in and gave me a name I was familiar with right away. Dr. Lottie Isbell Blake, a physician who also later taught at Meharry with Josie, was listed as the Medical Director of the Nashville Colored Sanitarium (later the Rock City Sanitarium) in the directory. Dr. Blake was a trailblazer in her own right and lived to be 100 years old! Like Dr. Patton, Dr. Blake became a missionary, however her service was in South America. (If you’d like to read more about Lottie! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lottie_Isbell_Blake)
Dr. Josie E. Wells did indeed set up shop! And she was the only female in an office at 411 4th Ave. N. According to the city directory, she was working in an office with at least three other doctors: Dr. Scott W. Crosthwaite, Dr. Charles V. Roman and Dr. Henry T. Noel. The building she was practicing in was owned by James. C. Napier, a prominent local Black businessman, politician and civic leader. The street level storefront of 411 was occupied by the One Cent Savings Bank, a bank owned and managed by prominent Black businessmen. In a crazy example of morbid circumstance, 411 4th Ave. N. occupied a historically significant location. Although in a thriving Black business district at the time, in Antebellum Nashville the local market house where slaves were sold stood very close to the same position. Today there is modern building on the site, with a historic marker for the slave market on the corner. The coincidence that Black men owned a bank on a location where Black men were sold only fifty years before is incredible. The area was also home to the first Black YMCA, a Black owned undertaking establishment, a Black owned publishing company and various other Black owned businesses. To say it was “thriving” is an understatement.
Josie’s practice was open to all, but her specialty was in the diseases of women and children. Josie was a vocal proponent that the number of women practicing in the medical profession would continue to grow and would entirely take over the care of women. The Nashville Globe documented a speech Josie gave to a group of young women on this topic in 1907. “She said that the time would come (not, however, in her day, but that it would surely come) when all women would be treated by her sex in the medical line. She hoped that many of the young ladies would not only go into the medical profession but would find the nurse training profession an agreeable one.” Speaking to a similar group of young ladies in New York City the same year Josie was said to have “captivated” the audience with her “straightforward talk and pleasing manner.” Josie was not a woman to sit and wait for progress. She believed women were the best option for the care of women, because they understood women. Even if she didn’t think she would live to see it happen, she did her best to encourage and support young women who were interested in medicine to become nurses and physicians. She contributed to a dream she hoped would eventually be realized.
Josie not only operated her private practice IN a prominent location in downtown Nashville, she was staff physician for Fisk University, Walden University and taught dietetics for Meharry Medical College. Josie lived and breathed medicine. Her forward thinking mind was beneficial to her profession. The medical field is still fast paced and always changing, but in Josie’s day methods and practices in the medical field were exploding with progress. Perhaps her openness to new ideas stemmed from her continuous work at Meharry educating others. She didn’t settle into a comfortable private practice. “Settle” was not a familiar word to Josie. “Forward” was more her style. In 1909, in addition to being named superintendent of Mercy Hospital, Josie opened a second office at Mercy. Her entire focus became the treatment of women and children. Two days a week she operated a free clinic at her Mercy location in the afternoons for only women and children. She did not discriminate “by complexion” but would not treat men in the clinic. She dispensed care and medications to women and their children who otherwise would not have been able to afford treatment.
She was especially interested in the progress that was being made with hydrotherapy for treatment of disease. She was introduced to hydrotherapy in her work with Dr. Lottie Isbell Blake at the Rock City Sanitarium and implemented these technologies in her private practice. Josie attended a course in Hydrotherapy and Electrotherapy at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, MI in 1913. Battle Creek Sanitarium not only was a vacation destination for people looking for holistic cures and healthy living, it was a destination for education. Among its thirty buildings was housed a nurses training program and research facilities. Interestingly enough, the director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium was Dr. John H. Kellogg, the inventor of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Part of the “healthy living” espoused by the Sanitarium was vegetarianism. Dr. Kellogg also advocated against racial mixing as it lead to race degeneration. My mind races when I come across very prominent names in history, names we all know: Booker T. Washington, John Mercer Langston, Ida B. Wells, John Kellogg (KELLOGG’s CORN FLAKES.) These are the people Josie was interacting with, having conversations with. Debating. Did she talk about race with Dr. Kellogg or did their conversations never stray from hydrotherapy? We’ll probably never know. But she left Battle Creek with more knowledge and implemented the new advances in hydrotherapy to help her patients specifically with “rheumatism, gastritis and all types of nervous conditions.”
History is tricky. It’s deep. It’s full of stories and detail. If you scratch the surface, sometimes the story you find is nothing like what you expected it to be. Josie was neither an outlaw nor the “first.” She was more.