An Arkansas History Minute: the legacy of Dr. Ida Brooks

Ida Brooks was born in 1853 in Iowa to preacher and Arkansas politician Joseph Brooks. But Ida Brooks would come to outshine her political father and become a pioneer in education and medicine in Arkansas in a time when women were typically sidelined.

Her family would move to Arkansas after the Civil War. While her father worked in the wild politics of Reconstruction-era Arkansas, Ida Brooks continued her education at a boarding school in St. Louis. She graduated from high school in 1870 and returned to Arkansas.

In 1873, she became a teacher in Little Rock. Impressed with her skills, the school promoted her to principal of the intermediate grades the next year. While she was teaching, Brooks enrolled at Little Rock University to improve her own education. She would graduate by 1877. At the same time, the Arkansas State Teachers Association elected her president of the organization, making her the first women to head any state teachers association anywhere in the nation. After receiving her masters degree from Drury College in Missouri, she became a professor of mathematics at Little Rock University in 1882.

After the establishment of the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock in 1879, Brooks’ interest in medicine grew, and she publicly called for the admission of women into medical schools. In 1887, she applied for admission, but in spite of her impressive credentials as an academic and as an educator, the school rejected her. Very few universities in the United States admitted women at all at that time, and even fewer were ever admitted into graduate schools, law schools or medical schools.

As for Arkansas, in 1897, Annie Schoppach of Little Rock would become the first woman admitted to the state’s medical school, graduating from her class of 20 in 1901.

Undaunted by the barriers thrown up by society and the medical establishment of the day, Brooks instead applied for admission into the Boston University School of Medicine. The university began admitting women into its medical program in 1873 when the medical school merged with the New England Female Medical College. In Boston, Brooks excelled in her studies, taking a special interest in psychiatry before she graduated in 1891.

In 1900, she returned to Arkansas briefly to work as a pediatrician, but would return to New England in 1903 as a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Hospital. By 1907, she had returned to Arkansas for good and worked as the medical director and psychiatrist for the Little Rock School District. She worked hard to keep track of the students’ health and overall emotional well-being, establishing new programs for the district. One of these programs was for students with mental retardation, establishing a special school for them in 1913. This school would only last four years, but it would be the first in Arkansas.

Unable to deny her talents any longer, the University of Arkansas Medical School hired her as an associate professor of psychiatry in 1914, becoming the first woman to teach there. When World War I erupted in 1917, Brooks was determined to do her part for the troops. At the age of 64, she volunteered to join the army as a doctor. The army turned her down, but the US Public Health Service enlisted her as a psychiatrist to help with the hospital at Camp Pike, just established in Little Rock.

Brooks died in 1939, just before her 86th birthday. Today, more than 30 percent of doctors in the United States are women, numbering well over 230,000, including more than 2,000 in communities across Arkansas.

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