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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58.2 (2003) 233-235

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Jean L. Silver-Isenstadt. Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. 342 pp., illus. $24.95

Mary Neal Gove Nichols has long been recognized as a leader of the nineteenth-century health reform movement. A prolific writer and effective public speaker, her lectures to “ladies” on human anatomy and physiology beginning in the 1830s introduced women to the workings of their own bodies, urging them to reflect on the correlation between health and happiness. Best known as a leading practitioner of the water cure method of healing, Nichols and her second husband Thomas Low Nichols founded the nation’s first hydropathic medical school in 1851. They were tireless advocates of hydrotherapeutics as an alternative to drug-based medical therapies [End Page 233] and promoted the expansion of women’ s professional roles, training many as hydropathic practitioners at a time when women were denied admission to “regular” medical colleges. Both Nicholses were at the forefront of crusades for the sexual liberation of women and the reform of marriage as a social institution. Although scholars have indeed recognized Mary Gove Nichols’s attraction to various ideologies, including free love and spiritualism, until now, no one has synthesized and explained (not to mention reveled in) the contradictory elements of her life. In this superb biography, however, Jean Silver-Isenstadt does just that. Digging into the details of a life that does not fit neatly into the patterns of traditional female moral reform and feminism, the author emerges with a gem of a book and plenty of reasons to recognize Nichols as one of the nineteenth-century’s earliest radical activists for women’s rights and health reform.

Born in 1810 in Goffstown, New Hampshire to Rebecca and William Neal, Nichols later credited her free-thinking father for her own intellectual assertiveness and independence. Neal encouraged in his daughter the skills of critical thinking, writing, and debate. After the death of her sister Emma and the family’s move to the isolated town of Craftsbury, Vermont, fifteen-year-old Mary turned to Quakerism, seeking an intellectual framework and a community of like-minded people for understanding suffering and loss. Although she later rejected Quakerism, her lifelong quest for moral authority and a social structure that promoted physical, intellectual, and spiritual fulfillment led to an interest in temperance, health, dietary, and dress reform, experimental communities based on the ideas of Josiah Warren and Charles Fourier, spiritualism, and lastly, to her conversion to Catholicism. Armed with an analytical mind and influenced by pivotal events early in her life, two themes emerged and dominated her later work: the perfectibility of human beings, and by extension, the perfectibility of society.

Mary Neal’s disastrous and sexually abusive marriage in 1831 to Hiram Gove was a motivating force in the development of her unconventional ideas on love and happiness, sex and reproduction, and marriage as an institution. Marriage to Hiram was crippling, violating what she believed were her God-given human rights to ownership of self. By law, Hiram had legal rights to her body, her child, and all income from her lectures and publications. In 1841, taking her young daughter with her, she left her husband and returned to the home of her parents. Eventually Hiram agreed to a divorce, and in 1848 Mary Gove married Thomas Low Nichols, embarking upon thirty-year partnership defined by mutual respect, love, intellectual collaboration, and commitment to feminism and health reform. “After years of being raped, she devoted the rest of her life to bathing, to the cause of women’s self-ownership, to a quest for harmonious relations, and to an ultimate defense of chastity” (p. 215). [End Page 234]

As Silver-Isenstadt acknowledges, this book is very much a dual biography; and her analysis of the ideas and publications of Thomas Low Nichols provides another window into Mary Gove Nichols’s life and work, highlighting the diverse languages of health...


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pp. 233-235
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