Maybe her zeal for justice started in an Iowa bluff cave when Martha Rogers Ripley was a young girl. Born in Vermont on Nov. 30, 1843, the oldest of five children, her family was among the first white settlers in northeastern Iowa — operating an Underground Railroad stop in the cave behind their farm for fugitive slaves heading to Canada.

Serving food to those slaves, “Martha was unwearied in her care of these unfortunate ones,” according to an 1893 profile, that insisted: “There is no busier woman in Minneapolis.”

Ripley didn’t arrive in Minnesota until she was 40. But in her 28 frenetic years here, she became a successful obstetrician, opened a hospital that served 5,000 unmarried or destitute pregnant women, led the state women’s suffrage group in the 1880s, lobbied police to hire women, organized maids to unionize, helped rehabilitate prostitutes and ran an early adoption center for abandoned babies.

Ripley once said she was driven by “the duty of not keeping silent when … wrong exists.”

A bronze plaque placed 80 years ago in the State Capitol rotunda calls her a “pioneer woman physician” with “farsighted vision and sympathy ... fearless in spirit, courageous in action, champion of righteousness … her life a noble influence, an enduring inspiration.”

Those etched words “fail to capture the dauntless spirit and burning dedication to justice,” according to Winton Solberg, a former Macalester College history professor who wrote the definitive Ripley profile in 1964 (tinyurl.com/MarthaRipley). He said Martha Ripley’s name became a household word — “and often a far from popular one” — among early Minnesotans.

Martha never graduated from high school, but became an Iowa schoolteacher at 17. When a diphtheria outbreak attacked her community, she tended to the sick and launched her long career in public health. Deemed too young to serve as a Civil War nurse, she raised money for the Union’s Sanitary Commission.

When a rich farmer refused to contribute money to the sanitation cause, he offered Martha all the potatoes she could dig. She blistered her hands, digging $90 worth of potatoes during a long day. Halfway through, the farmer offered her $10.

“If you had given me $5 yesterday,” she said, “I should have been quite satisfied, but now I’m going to have the potatoes.”

After the Civil War, she married William Ripley, a Massachusetts mill owner. They returned East, raising three daughters as Martha often cared for sick mill-working families. When one baby in her care died from croup, Ripley decided to enroll at Boston University’s medical school.

Solberg, her biographer, found her application essay in medical school records, which hinted at the tireless advocacy for women’s rights that was coming. God created women, she wrote, “with brains equal in capacity to those of their brothers.”

After Martha received her medical degree, the Ripleys moved to Minneapolis in 1883 where she became the eighth female licensed doctor among 20 statewide. Houses in the milling boomtown were selling as soon as “the cellar is dry.” It wasn’t quite Boston, she said, “but the place grows upon one.”

As she opened a series of hospitals for pregnant women, her husband was at her side — often driving the buggy that delivered the doctor to “night calls in a buggy heated with warmed soapstones,” one of their daughters said in 1961.

Founding Maternity Hospital in 1886 became her defining contribution. Dedicated to unwed women who had been led astray, the hospital grew, moved and, by 1896, opened on Penn Avenue North with Ripley its attending physician and “guiding spirit.”

A stickler for rigid aseptic standards, Ripley’s hospital lost no babies in childbirth during the last 11 years of the 1800s. During the Depression, the hospital’s maternal death rate was less than a third of the statewide average.

Ripley was also a frequent force at the State Capitol, where the age of consent law had been set at 10. When prosecutors lacked the teeth to go after a man for “violating” his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Ripley pushed lawmakers to raise the age to 18.

They refused in 1889, allowing men to sign away unborn children — a vote Ripley called “worthy of the Dark Ages.” Outraged by the injustice to women, she petitioned the state Senate to allow women to vote — a gesture, Solberg said, that was “met with laughter and ridicule.”

By late 1911, Ripley’s Maternity Hospital had served 5,200 patients. Now in her late 60s, she trudged one winter day to the Capitol — catching a respiratory infection that killed her on April 18, 1912, at age 68. Her last words? “Is everything all right at the hospital?”

An early proponent of the public health advantages of cremation, Ripley’s ashes were placed in the cornerstone of a new building at Maternity Hospital in 1915.

“Minneapolis has a resident whose life work will live long after her,” historian Isaac Atwater wrote in 1893. “Those who appreciate energy, ability, unselfishness and fearless devotion to duty, will hold her in lasting love and honor.”

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday.

Send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.