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February 22, 2023

Historic Hamilton County Women in STEM

By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

For Women’s History Month, we’re going to be looking at two local women who took a different path than many women of their era and decided to delve into science and engineering.

Dr. Joyce Hobson
Image courtesy of Dottie Young

Dr. Joyce Hobson

The first woman doctor in Hamilton County was known as Mrs. Dr. Joyce Hobson (1851-1939), although she began life as Joyce Fredrica Richards, daughter of John W. and Catherine Richards. One newspaper article said that Hobson’s mother was a strong and independent woman, and “Her husband having delicate health, she often had to take full control of all of their interests.” The family moved to Hamilton County in the 1860s, and by 1874, Joyce had become a teacher. She married William H. Hobson in 1876 and little is known about him.

Joyce Hobson graduated in June of 1878 from the Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati as one of two women in the class of 66 students. A report from the Indiana State Society called her “…a bright and intelligent little body….” She opened her practice in Noblesville in August of 1879. In the 1880 census, she is listed as living with her mother, and there is no mention of her husband. She started in with her practice, joined professional societies, and presented papers at conventions. In May of 1880, she became one of the vice-presidents of the state Eclectic Medical Association.

1883 was a year of controversy for her. The state association split in March, and she went with the new group. In April, the Hamilton County Medical Society expelled Dr. W. H. Cyrus for working with her. When criticized, he made his support for Dr. Hobson clear by responding that,” …he would be damned if he would go back on the woman.” (There was public protest in support of Cyrus and Hobson, and the society eventually retracted their decision.) In June, someone tried to slander her by saying she had carried smallpox from one patient to another. The patient had to put a notice in the newspaper stating the claim was false.

From The Noblesville Ledger – February 18, 1887

At the same time this was going on, she was editor of the state Eclectic Medical Journal and on the Board of Trustees for the newly-formed Beach Medical College. She presented a paper at the national convention in 1885. In 1886, she became a member of the only unisex fraternal organization in Hamilton County: the United Order of Honor. She also took on her first apprentice, Lucy Gossett. Gossett would go on to have a long career as a doctor in Tipton County. Dr. Hobson’s second apprentice, Mivinda Wheeler, would also have a long career in Noblesville.

Hobson published an article titled “Women’s Sphere in Medicine” in the state journal in January of 1890. However, she was apparently overwhelmed by her workload and had a physical collapse in August. This may have influenced her decision to move to Arkansas with her mother in 1891. Her life turned out to be just as stressful in the new state. Her mother died in March of 1893, and Joyce married John Wesley Osburn in April. (The last name is spelled “Osborn” and “Osborne” in records. She chose the latter for her grave marker.)

Her new husband had health issues, and the couple moved to California in January of 1903 for his health. However, it did not help, and he died in March on the way back to Arkansas. She may have given up on medicine after this as the last known reference to her as a doctor is in 1906. She continued to move around the country. In the 1920 census, she was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in the 1930 census, her home was in California where she died in 1939.

Alice Armstrong

Patent for Alice Armstrong’s sash fastener

Alice Armstrong (1813-1901) was the first known Hamilton County woman to receive a US patent. We don’t have a lot of information about her as she was a Quaker who led a quiet life as the wife of and mother to farmers. She was married in 1833, but her husband died in 1846 at the age of 36. After that, her sons did the farm work until around 1880 when she moved in with one of her daughters. Perhaps, this gave her time to work on her engineering ideas.

In 1891, she invented a “sash fastener,” which was a kind of window latch. She applied for a patent on August 17 and was awarded one on December 1st. The latch was controlled by a spring and could lock the window at different heights. She apparently didn’t stop there. In 1894, at the age of 81, she had her own business selling sheet music. When she died at age 87, she was buried at Hinkle Creek Cemetery next to her husband.

These two women, among many others, paved the way as trailblazers for today’s women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields.