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Female physician won her way into the hearts of her patients

The calculated date of this photo of the Hornback Building, located on the northwest corner of Fifth and Broadway, is 1912. The Hannibal city directory for that year lists Dr. Mary S. Ross as a physician with an office in room 25 of this building. Other building occupants in 1912 included: First floor, at left in this picture: James C. Chilton, physician, rooms 2-4-6; First floor, at right: Dr. E.T. Hornback, rooms 1-3; Second floor, four windows at left, Columbia Land Oil and Gas Co., George F. Jasper, president, and W.A. Smith, treasurer, rooms 20-22-24; Second floor, two windows at right, Mark Twain Savings and Loan Association, rooms 21-23; Third floor, Hagan and Brady, (Thos S. Hagan and Michael Brady) real estate and insurance, rooms 30-31, Hornback building. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

Dr. Mary Sophia Ross was a familiar figure in Hannibal during the 1920s, conducting her medical practice from her suite of offices on the second floor of the Hornback Building at Fifth and Broadway, and making house calls in her Model-T Ford.

AT RIGHT: A careful, enlarged look at the front stoop of the Hornback building shows a shadowy image of a woman wearing a long dress, and it looks as if she is sweeping off the stoop. The possibility exists that the woman in the photo is Dr. Ross.

Dr. Ross came to Hannibal from her native home of Prince Edward Island, Canada, unaccompanied circa 1909, and continued to practice medicine here until her death, which occurred in 1939, when she was 71 years old.

A newspaper clipping from the Quincy Daily Journal dated May 11, 1923, paints a picture of Dr. Ross and her lifestyle in Hannibal.

Her Model T, equipped with a hand crank located on the front of the car to start the engine, was parked on one of Hannibal’s notorious hills. “Owing to the bad condition of the brakes and the fact that the car was parked on a steep incline, she placed a rock in front of one of the front wheels,” the newspaper reported. “When ready to leave she attempted to pick the stone away from the wheel, but found that it was held firmly. When it was removed the car gave away so suddenly that she was thrown to the ground and her body was badly bruised.”

Hannibal native Jean Moore, age 93, of near Pittsburgh, Pa., has vivid memories of Dr. Ross, her car and her office, dating back to 1928, when Jean was 5 or 6 years old.

Dr. Ross drove a Model T Ford, Jean confirms, “including out (in the country) to deliver me. Her Model T just had one seat, and room for a bag in the back. If there wasn’t a man around, she cranked her own little car.” When on a house call at the rural home of Jean’s parents, “My father cranked the engine for her.”

Dr. Ross was “Kindhearted, bless her heart. She asked all kinds of questions, like an aunt or uncle would,” Jean said. “She wore glasses way low on her nose.

“She wore a brown or black dress, to her ankles, and black flat heel shoes, like pioneer women wore, above her ankles, all laced up. When someone came in the office she put on a black apron to keep (her dress) clean.”

The Hornback building was nearly new when Dr. Ross first arrived in Hannibal sometime prior to 1910. Constructed for Dr. Edward T. Hornback, who listed this building as his work address in the 1907 Hannibal city directory, Dr. Ross had settled into second-floor office space at 500 Broadway by 1911.

Patients would continue to climb the stairs to the building’s second floor and make a left turn to her office until her death in 1939.

By 1918, Dr. Mary Ross was both living and practicing medicine in rooms 22-24 of the Hornback Building, 500 Broadway.

“She had three rooms. She had a burner or two in one room, and that’s where she cooked,” Jean Moore says. “I remember the waiting room was dark, it was in the middle. She had a couch in there, like a lounge, covered with tufted black horsehair. That was her bed.

“Her office was at the front, and had an examining table, a great big desk - a huge sideboard desk - with huge tomes (books) about medicine. I can remember how (the office) smelled, like medicine,” Jean remembers. “She would give us samples of cod liver oil, not purified, fishy and strong. Later they added molasses to it, (to make it taste better) but it didn’t help much, I will tell you.”

Dr. Ross boiled her instruments, including shot needles, and then placed them in a basket and put the basket in the window for the instruments to dry in the sun. “Every shot I had was in the middle of my stomach,” Jean remembers. “I had all kinds of reactions to that.”

Jean recalls a conversation that Dr. Ross had with Jean’s mother, telling how she ended up in Hannibal.

“She owned stocks in train systems. She showed me - when I was about six - the boxes of stocks. She got on a train in the upper providences of Canada, and got off at different stops to see if the towns needed a doctor. She got off at Hannibal and stayed.”

While it was not unusual for women to practice medicine during the early years of the 20th Century, not everyone was accepting of a woman doctor. Jean remembers hearing Dr. Ross talk about problems she had being accepted by patients and other physicians. “What a tough time she had among men in order to be a doctor,” Jean said. But ultimately, “Dr. Ross became quite good friends with other doctors in town, including Dr. William Birney.”

In addition to Drs. Ross and Hornback practicing at 500 Broadway in 1923, Dr. J.C. Chilton had his office on the west side of the first floor of the building. Dr. Birney’s office was in the same block, at 522 Broadway, and Dr. Edward Bounds was at 524 Broadway. Dr. Charles E. Paxon was in practice across the street at 511 Broadway.

Dr. Mary Sophia Ross was born on Nov. 7, 1867, on Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Murdoch Ross (1829-1896) and Margaret Carruthers Ross (1844-1914). Genealogy records indicate she was the oldest of 11 children.

She was listed in the 1891 Census of Canada as age 23, a student living at home with her parents. Sessional Papers, 1908, Canada, indicate that Mary S. Ross was living at 7 Tudor-mansions, Gondar gardens, West Hampstead, Northwest London. The following years she was living at Hill Crest, Dorman’s Park, Sussex, England. She was listed in the 1911 Hannibal City Directory, boarding at 723 Center Street. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1917 at Hannibal. She died Oct. 5, 1939, at Hannibal, Mo.


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