This past March 8th was International Women’s Day, and the print, broadcast, and social media highlighted numerous examples of women who have contributed to our society in various ways. As I watched these stories I thought back to some examples of women’s contributions to the Marengo community throughout our history. For example, over the years several women ran successful businesses in Marengo; one being Henrietta C. Thayer who operated a Millinery, and the second was Miss Kate Bloodgood who operated a shoe store. Both of these enterprises were part of our downtown business landscape from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. In the 1930’s Marengo’s Emma Van Alstyne Lanning, or Aunt Em as she was referred to, was a well-known radio personality who regularly broadcast shows on Rockford’s WROK, and Chicago’s WLS. But, these stories are for another time. This month I’m going to introduce our readers to DR. Arabella “Belle” Seward; a Marengo physician.

Belle was born in Coral Township on Christmas Day of 1849 to Ephraim Hewitt Seward, and Louisa Rogers Seward. Ephraim and Louisa were both from Middletown. Vermont, but did not marry until they met again in 1846 in the Marengo area.

Belle attended local schools, and afterward finished her studies at the Rockford Female Seminary, which is now Rockford College. Belle then continued her education at the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital which was then located at 2809 Cottage Grove in Chicago.

Hahnemann was a homeopathic institution that opened its door in 1859 and in 1871 became coeducational. The institution shuttered its doors in 1922 after a merger with Northwestern failed. In February of 1882 Belle graduated with an M.D. Interestingly enough; the announcement in February 24, 1882, edition of the Marengo Republican News mentioned two other Marengo women earning their M.D.’s – Lida and Millie Peck; a topic that will surely be researched in the future.

A woman attending medical school is not unheard of today, but it was a different situation in the 1880’s. A biographical sketch in The Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois (1903) stated this about Belle’s medical education; “She took her course in medicine and began practice at a time when the obstacles which barred the entrance of women into the professions in general, and to this one in particular were in full force and effect, and when popular prejudice excluded women, to a large extent, from employment as physicians in private families.” The sketch concluded, “And thus it was, that Dr. Belle Seward was entitled to be regarded as one of the pioneers in this new era of progress.”

After graduation Belle practiced medicine in Rockford for few years, but she could not be kept away from Marengo. In the early months of 1885 short announcements appeared in the Marengo Republican News informing readers that “Dr. Belle Seward will be in town for a few weeks. Any ladies wishing medical treatment from her can call upon her at her home. Neuralgia, headaches, and diseases of women a specialty.” By June of 1885 advertisements in the newspaper appeared that announced that Belle opened an office on the corner of Main St., and State St. But, Belle’s medical practice wasn’t limited only to the city limits of Marengo. According to the Encyclopedia of Illinois her practice “extended to the surrounding country, compelling her, at times, to take night rides in all sorts of weather and engage in treatment of all kinds of diseases.”

In mid- July of 1895, her night rides suffered somewhat of a setback when thieves entered her father’s pasture in Coral Township and removed her white-faced bay mare and road cart. Local police sent a “be on-the-lookout” for the horse and cart to authorities in a 30 mile radius of Marengo. Finally, 10 weeks later in late September the horse and cart were recovered by the Milwaukee Police Department in Wisconsin. The thieves were never caught.

In 1901 Belle married Loren Woodard, local business man and former Marengo city president (mayor). Woodard settled in Marengo in 1851, and engaged in the nursery business. He is also known for opening Marengo’s first pickle factory, as well as serving as the Director and Vice President of the Dairyman’s State Bank. The marriage was a short one; Woodard died on November 29, 1904, leaving Belle a widow.

Belle passed away on March 22, 1918, at age 68. The Marengo Republican News for the time of her death is not available in digital format, and the facts surrounding her death were not immediately available. Belle is buried in the Marengo City Cemetery. 

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