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The Pioneering Female Physician

She became a doctor “to help mothers keep their little ones well.”

Elizabeth Magnus Cohen was a 19th century female physician who provided expert medical care to patients in the French Quarter of New Orleans for thirty years.

Born in NYC in 1820 to Jewish immigrants from England, Elizabeth married Dr. Aaron Cohen in New York and had five children. In 1853, Elizabeth’s oldest son died of measles and she was convinced that better medical care could have saved his life. The tragedy inspired Elizabeth to become a doctor so she could “help mothers to keep their little ones well.” At age 33, she enrolled in the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth graduated in 1857, and the newly minted MD moved to New Orleans to join her husband, who was working as a surgeon there. Dr. Elizabeth Cohen started practicing medicine immediately, and was soon popular with patients and doctors alike. She was the first female doctor in Louisiana history, and was listed in the New Orleans City Directory as a midwife, and then as a “doctress.” It wasn’t until 1876 that she was officially classified as a physician.

During her 30 years of practicing medicine in New Orleans, the city was hit with recurrent epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox, and typhoid. She later said that she never had an uninterrupted night, and was often called out to help patients twice in one night.

Elizabeth started a successful private practice, caring mostly for women and children. She was proud of attending “families through generations, and often the girl at whose coming into the world I had assisted, when grown to womanhood would engage me for a similar function.”

Dr. Elizabeth Cohen outlived her husband and all of her children (only one lived to adulthood.) She retired in 1887 and moved into Touro Infirmary, which was founded by Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro to treat slaves and free blacks, as well as whites. She wasn’t just a resident at the hospital, but also a busy volunteer known for her interest in current events and women’s rights. She said, “I’m glad to see the girls of today getting an education. In my youth you had to fight for it. And I believe in suffrage too – things will be better when women can vote and can protect their own property and their own children.”

When Elizabeth was 100 years old, Congress ratified the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. She died the next year, at age 101. With no family left, she left her estate to the Touro Infirmary (now called the Julius Weis Home for the Aged). In a letter to her brother, Elizabeth articulated her thoughts about dying, “I am not sure what I will have in the hereafter, so I am trying to enjoy what is given to me here… I am trying my very best to be good according to my ideas of goodness – that is to live in the fear of God and keeping his ten commandments.”

Dr. Elizabeth Cohen was buried at Gates of Prayer cemetery in New Orleans, and she would have been pleased that her tombstone included M.D. after her name.

For blazing a trail as New Orleans’ first woman doctor, and lovingly caring for generations of patients, we honor Dr. Elizabeth Magnus Cohen as this week’s Thursday Hero.

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