Suzan Rose Benedict and a Dark Path to Smith College

As I stated in my last post, I believe Minnie Cleghorn was inspired to introduce women’s physical education at Norwalk High School in part by accounts from fellow teacher Suzan Benedict about her experience at Smith College. I’ll get to that in a later post. But first, there is a question I’d like to explore. Why did Suzan attend such a prestigious college as Smith in the first place? Few young women were so fortunate in the late 1800s, especially those who lived in small towns like Norwalk.

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Suzan Rose Benedict was born in Norwalk, Ohio, the youngest child of David DeForrest Benedict, MD and Harriott Melvina Benedict (née Deaver). The story of her parents early years is told in the Sufferers Land Posts on this website, beginning with Post #30, Jonas Benedict.

During the Civil War, David Benedict served as a surgeon in the Union army, was captured at the Battle of Chickhaumagu and held at Libby Prison until exchanged. He returned to the army for the Battle of Atlanta and after the fall of that city, accompanied Sherman’s army on the March to the Sea. Eighty letters he wrote to his wife during the war survived, and formed the basis of “Little Doctor on the Black Horse,” by his granddaughter Harriott Wickham, on this website. He seemed to have been scarred by the war, and never practiced medicine again, instead going into pharmacy.

Suzan Benedict grew up in the home depicted in the header of this website with her father and mother, five older sisters, and a brother. Apparently, she excelled in high school, but I don’t believe that alone was enough for her parents to allow her to go to Smith College after graduation. None of her sisters went to college. Suzan’s sister Aggie (my great-grandmother) wanted to become a doctor, like her father, but he forbid it, believing women should not go into medicine. He did allow her to become a pharmacist and work in his pharmacy until she married.

Benedict Sisters 001.jpg

The Benedict Sisters. front row: Frances, Suzan, Ellen; back row: Mary, Hattie, Aggie.

Suzan’s brother Fred was a different matter altogether. After graduating high school, he attended his father’s alma mater, Kenyon College. He was the apple of his father’s eye, the family’s hope for the future in Norwalk, the last male descendant of Platt Benedict. And by all accounts, he was a personable fellow, almost too good to be true.

Fred Benedict

Fred Benedict

In March of 1885, Fred caught a bad cold. Perhaps he had been out in the weather. From growing up there, I know that March in Ohio can be raw and miserable. It is more likely, however, he caught it from other young men he lived in close quarters with. In any event, he went home to recover. But he did not recover. Every day a small item in the newspaper reported that his cold had worsened, then that it had turned to pneumonia. On March 11 came the dreaded news–Frederick Benedict had died at 2:30 that morning. [1]

Grief hung over the house, and the town, like a shroud. All were affected in some way, but especially Fred’s father. He was already damaged from his experience in the Civil War, [2] and he never quite recovered from the death of his only son.

Was this, then, the reason that Suzan was allowed to go to Smith College. I think it very well may be. No matter how it happened, in the Fall of 1891 at the age of eighteen, Suzan Rose Benedict began her freshman year at Smith College. [3] How she fared at Smith, and what experiences she had with women’s athletics at the school will be the subject of my next post: Suzan Rose Benedict at Smith College.

Footnotes:

[1] “Death of Fred Benedict,” Norwalk Daily Reflector; 11 Mar 1885; Page: 1 Column: 4. (Updates on Fred’s worsening health were published in the Norwalk Daily Reflector on 5, 9 and 10 March 1885).

[2] Ian Frazier, Family; Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, NY, 1994; 157. (New Yorker columnist Ian Frazier is also a descendant of David Benedict.)

[3] “Students: First Class,” Smith College Official Circular, Number 18, Northampton, MA, October, 1891; 29

Other Sources about Suzan Benedict:

“Suzan Rose Benedict,” Wikipedia.

Judy Green and Jeanne LaDuke, Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: the pre-194 PhD’s; American Mathematical Society, 2009; 141.

 

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