Birth of an Early LDS OBGYN

It is to me the crowning joy of a woman’s life to be a mother

-Ellis Reynolds Shipp

If you have read Heather’s post, “Midwifery as a Calling”, then you have heard of Dr. Ellis Shipp.  I wanted to share a little more about her.  It is evident she felt called to the work before she was formally called by Brigham Young to attend medical school.  Prior to that call she had taken it upon herself to study in the early morning hours from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m.  She even began privately studying with a local physician, Dr. Gunn, in January 1872.  Of this she stated, “as I deem it the duty of every mother to understand perfectly the laws of health” (Burgess-Olsen, 368).  Two years later she left for medical school with the intention to improve maternity and infant care.  This was not an easy task for her to leave her three small children.  She was encouraged and supported by her husband and sister-wives (polygamous wives of her husband). She even gave birth while completing her medical studies:

“In May 1877 she gave birth to her sixth child, a baby girl. The following summer Ellis served residency at the hospital affiliated with the Women’s Medical College while a landlady looked after her infant.  In August Ellis attempted to make some money at dressmaking in rural New Jersey.  Toddler in one arm and dress pattern in the other, she hiked from one farmhouse to the next until she earned enough to go to school.  Despite the additional burdens of motherhood, Ellis rejoiced in her daughter: ‘it is to me the crowning joy of a woman’s life to be a mother.'” (Burgess-Olsen, 371)

Upon completing medical school she was set apart to practice medicine among the saints.  She gave birth to ten children, five of whom died in infancy.  One author noted of her, “Once she understood how such tragedies could be avoided , she was restless to spread the word” (Burgess-Olsen, 372).  She realized that more good could be done by training up nurses and midwives than merely working through her private practice alone.  She even traveled outside her state and country to provide this training. It was also said of her that “it was not unusual for Ellis to be pregnant or for her to be holding the baby of one of her students while she lectured” (Wardell).  I love that her life’s work was integrally weaved with God’s mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

We are told to study the history of our church and in that search we will learn precious lessons.  So this is what I felt impressed upon me as I studied about her:

1 – As mothers we should “understand perfectly the laws of health.”  I’m waiting for a conference talk entitled, “Are We Not All Nurses?”  because at times it seems that way as a mother.  I could not count how many sleepless nights I have spent with my children.  Medical care is expensive and the more acquainted I am with preventing disease and illness the less we have to spend on it or rely upon others.  It is wisdom to be understand the laws of health, learn natural ways of healing, and use medical care when it is truly needed.

2 – It is possible to rear children when called upon by the Lord to complete an education.  I am impressed with the women who have surrounded me that experienced pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and motherhood while working to secure their education.  Are there any of you out there?  I would love to hear how you did it. In her day medical school lasted about two years, quite different from today, but I love her example of seeking to improve her knowledge before she formally entered medical school. Regardless of whether I gain the knowledge in a formal setting or not, I want to always be continually learning.

3 – Her rules for longevity: “peaceful mind, pure air, good food, clean body, cheerfulness, regular habits, sufficient sleep, relaxation, religion, and self-respect” (Burgess-Olsen, 373).  Great advice and there are now studies to back up her common sense recommendations.

4 – Dr. Shipp also recommended that you, “keep your child a child as long as possible.”  She encouraged parents to avoid exposing their children to “late hours, rich foods, and an endless social whirl” (Burgess-Olsen, 374).  Some of her recommendations remind me of what Julie B. Beck said in her talk “Mother’s Who Know.”  I like the idea of keeping my children young in heart as long as possible.  Teaching them good habits early in life pays off.

In order to encourage motherhood, compassionate, loving and skilled care is required to be available for the mothers who bear children. I am grateful for the faithful health care providers like Ellis R. Shipp who sacrificed to gain the necessary skills so that they could provide inspired care to their patients, particularly mamas and babies. It seems there are many women who although they did not recieve a formal call from their prophet or bishop, have felt called upon to learn skills that aid in the protection of the gift of giving life.  Knowing more about her life has brought to me a reverance for the words she penned in this hymn (#231),


Father, cheer our souls tonight;

Lift our burdens, make them light.

Let thine all-pervading love

Shine upon us from above.

Calm the surges of the soul;

Bid the dark waves backward roll.

Let us all thy mercies feel

Thru the pow’r thou dost reveal.

Bless our loved ones far away;

Grant them health and peace, we pray.

In their hearts let holy light

Beam to guide their steps a-right.

Let implicit faith and trust

Help us know thy ways are just.

May thine ever tender love

Lead our hearts to thee above.


I just may have to find a version of this song for my next labor relaxation CD.  I definitely noticed imagery of birth and motherhood in her prose.  Ellis Reynolds Shipp was not only a doctor and author but she also served on the General Relief Society Board and the Mutual Improvement Association.  Even with all of her impressive accomplishments she valued motherhood above all else saying, “it is to me the crowning joy of a woman’s life to be a mother.”  So if you have embarked upon a journey to improve the health of mothers and babies I pray the Lord’s blessings upon you in your journey.  It is a noble work.



Burgess-Olson, Vicky. Sister Saints. Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT 1978.

Wardell, Julie. “Ellis Reynolds Shipp – Mother and Doctor,” Friend, April 1984.

4 thoughts on “Birth of an Early LDS OBGYN”

  1. I really love the part about her teaching with a baby in her arms. I think that so often women (esp. mothers) could be so much more involved in “society” if it wasn’t so taboo to take babies or children with you. Just imagine if most things were “child friendly” that would really change things for mothers.

    Also, have you read her Auto-biography. It is called “While others slept” it is incredible to hear about her sacrifices from her own words. Her youngest was only a few months old when she left him with a sister wife to go to medical school- she didn’t see him again till he was almost 3! She really was an incredible woman.

    1. Thank you for sharing those other pieces of information. I’m glad you noticed that part about her teaching with a baby in her arms. Like you I would love more “child friendly” opportunities for moms.

  2. What a remarkable woman! She inspires me. I think she’s surely smiling down on us and our book project!

  3. The story of Dr. Shipp is one of my favorite about pioneer women. Whenever I get creeped out by our polygamist past or hear people question whether it was inspired or not, I think of Dr. Shipp and other women like her. Her relationship with her sister-wives allowed her to pursue a career well outside her domain as a wife and mother and she was able to bless the lives of countless women by doing so. Whether plural marriage was inspired or not, the Lord blessed the lives of those willing to make the sacrifice to practice it. And it gave us some pretty awesome Mormon feminists!

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