Marcena Sherman Ricker, M.D. Personal Physician to Susan B. Anthony

Marcena Sherman Ricker, M.D. was one of four well-known women doctors from the Castile area leading the way in the care of women and children in the late 1800s. Dr. Clara Swain, Dr. Cordelia A. Greene, and Dr. Mary T. Greene were all her contemporaries and friends who encouraged one another in their challenging professions. They were all known for their competency and compassion in treating their patients, and their charity work.

Early Life

Marcena was born July 23, 1852, to Benjamin and Eliza Sherman of the Town of Castile and was the third child in their family of five, four daughters and a son. The family farm was located on Upper Reservation Road, just outside the village, and later became known as the Silver Lake Fruit Farm.

She and her siblings Mary, Sarah, Emma, and John Daniel attended local schools growing up, with the three oldest girls focused on becoming school teachers when they reached their teens. Mary and Sarah were already teaching by 1870. At Gainesville Seminary, NY, Marcena completed her high school education along with her good friend, Elizabeth Emmett. The two girls then enrolled at Albany Normal School with Marcena’s oldest sister, Mary. After graduation in June 1875, she returned to teach in Castile at one of the district schools for two years, before moving on to a school near Erie, Pennsylvania, for another two years.

Medical Training

Marcena was never quite settled on teaching and wanted to do more in helping others. With these doubts about education being her true calling, she began considering a medical career. The examples of Dr. Cordelia A. Greene and Dr. Clara Swain no doubt inspired her. It soon became apparent to the ambitious young woman that she could make a significant difference in the lives of others, especially women and children, if she pursued the healing arts. Enrolling in the Rochester City Hospital’s Training School for Nurses in 1880, Marcena knew she’d chosen rightly. After graduation in 1884, Marcena knew she wanted to continue her education to become a physician, which was no easy pathway for a woman in the 19th century. Gaining admission at medical colleges was extremely difficult for women at that time, and after many rejections, she was finally accepted at Cleveland Homeopathic College, graduating in the spring of 1888.

Returning to Rochester, Dr. Sherman established a private practice at 143 Fulton Avenue, living with her older sister, Mary Zilpha Sherman, who worked at a nearby shoe store. The new doctor focused on the care of women and children, and it didn’t take long for her to become a popular doctor, and the practice flourished. The sisters made an interesting pact at the time never to marry, so they could always live together, but this promise would later cause a serious rift in their relationship.

Medical Career

Because her medical training followed the homeopathic philosophy developed in Germany during the late 1700s and was and is still considered alternative medicine, Dr. Sherman could not practice at her nursing alma mater, City Hospital, which followed the allopathic system which is  traditional medicine. She was, however, admitted to the Homeopathic Hospital of Rochester (now Genesee Hospital) and was one of the first women doctors appointed there. Her particular interest was diseases that affected women and children, and she continued post-graduate work in New York City on the topic. As a member of the Monroe County Medical Association, Western New York Medical Society, and the American Medical Association, Dr. Sherman also began contributing to medical journals, building her expertise and reputation within the medical community.

Marriage and Career Development

In 1890, the sisters moved to 212 Lake Avenue, where life was about to change for the two women. Marcena was a woman of faith and became an active member of the Lake Avenue Baptist Church, which still exists today. It was there that she met Wentworth Ricker, a widower originally from Maine who had two grown daughters, Susie and Harriet. Ricker was a successful businessman and president of Ricker Manufacturing Company. The two fell in love and were married on June 6, 1893. Marcena was 40, and Wentworth was 51. However, Mary Sherman declined to share in her sister’s joy, and despite the ardent pleas of Marcena and Wentworth, she refused to forgive the breaking of the sisters’ pact to live together. Sadly, this was always a source of sorrow for the couple.

After their marriage, the newlyweds resided at Wentworth’s elegant, four-story home at 58 Lorimer Street. Wentworth encouraged his new wife in her work, renovating a space on the first floor that served as Marcena’s office and a spacious patient waiting room. The master bedroom was directly over the office on the second floor. Because the practice focused on obstetrics, Marcena had a metal tube device installed outside the waiting room door, which connected to the bedroom. This way, she could easily be contacted after hours for those middle-of-the-night deliveries. When the telephone came along, the Rickers had one installed by her bedside. The doctor’s great joy was to help bring new life into the world, and Marcena kept a photo of every baby she delivered on the waiting room walls. The photos were of uniform size and dangled on pink and blue ribbons.

The Rickers lived comfortably, employing a housekeeper and a coachman to care for their home and transportation needs. They also had regular boarders for many years, along with Dr. Ricker’s niece, Florence Sherman, when she attended the Mechanics Institute (now RIT) in Rochester. One of the roomers was Miss Alice Chester, who served as the secretary to two presidents of Colgate Rochester Divinity School, a Baptist seminary, and Miss Cora Bradt, the daughter of her childhood friend,  Elizabeth Emmett Bradt.

The Love of Horses, Cars, and Travel

The couple purchased a lovely summer home on Lake Ontario about ten years into their marriage, spending summer vacations at the shore to relax from their intense work. The area later became known as the Gold Coast of Rochester. Dr. Ricker’s niece, Florence Sherman, fondly remembered spending time at the house, listening to the roar of the waves and swimming with the couple as a young girl. The Rickers later sold the lake house and built a winter home in Winter Park, Florida.

Every summer, Marcena, and Wentworth attended two annual events without fail. He was a Civil War veteran, and the couple enjoyed his Grand Old Party Veterans’ Reunion each year, along with her Homeopathic National Convention.

Marcena loved horses from the time she was a girl, learning to ride and drive a buggy on the farm. She kept horses in Rochester and was especially fond of a fine gelding, which she named Juno. The Lorimer Street home had a large stable, and her coachman drove her to the numerous house calls she made throughout the week. However, there were days the doctor enjoyed taking the reins to drive Juno herself on her rounds.

Her mode of transportation changed in 1912 when Dr. Ricker became fascinated with automobiles. She liked the idea of an electric vehicle and bought a tiny coupe that year with a range of 50 miles. Marcena drove it herself and found it ideal for home calls. She also discovered that she and Wentworth could just make it from their home in Rochester to Castile on one charge. They left the car at a garage in the village to be recharged for the return trip.

In 1918, Dr. Ricker traded in her electric coupe for a Chevrolet sedan. She learned to drive the gasoline-powered car at age 66, but Wentworth determined his driving days were done and let Marcena do the driving. He had driven the electric coupe but had no desire to deal with new technology. The couple took the car to Winter Park, Florida, every winter, returning in the spring when Marcena took up her practice and charitable work responsibilities.

Charitable Work

Helping those in need and working to ensure women and children a better life was one of Dr. Ricker’s priorities. In 1895, she became involved with a new charity, Door of Hope, which served unwed, pregnant women and single women with children. Door of Hope worked cooperatively with City Hospital, which in turn provided doctors and nurses. Pregnant women were assisted with prenatal and postnatal care while being given moral and practical instruction to steer them toward a productive life. No women were forced to give up their babies, but adoption arrangements were made if the mother desired. No woman was turned away because of race, religion, or social standing. Dr. Ricker served as a volunteer on the medical staff and the Board of Managers until 1912. The organization survives today and is now known as Hillside Children’s Center.

The doctor also became a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and was heavily involved in its work to educate the public about the dangers of alcohol and lobbying to prohibit the sale and use of alcohol. While this organization seems strange to 21st-century people, alcoholism was rampant, and doctors especially saw the physical abuse of women and children and the horrifying poverty thrust upon abandoned families. Social causes were at the forefront in many church pulpits, and everyone was called upon to do their part. She traveled extensively to international meetings and wrote many articles to promote the cause of the WCTU.

Marcena was also involved in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and was a Rochester Political Equality Club member. She presented a paper to the club in March 1897 outlining the progress of women entering the medical profession and the history of medical schools and hospitals accepting women as students and doctors. Although very interested in women’s suffrage and a close friend of Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Ricker never committed herself to the fray, instead remaining focused on disadvantaged women, providing safe medical care for them, and offering a way to a better life with training and education. She also provided nurses training for a group of Gray Samaritans in 1918, who were Polish women returning to Poland to give aid to refugees during World War I. Under the YWCA umbrella, these brave women ran soup kitchens, managed orphanages and adoptions, provided medical care to wounded soldiers and civilians, and helped with evacuations during the Russian invasion.

Her final charitable work was the establishment of the Baptist Home for the Aging, now Fairport Baptist Home. Dr. Ricker understood the need for around-the-clock care for many of her aging patients and successfully proposed to the Monroe County Baptist Association that a retirement home for the elderly be established in 1904. She would direct the Home until her death in 1933.

Susan B. Anthony

Dr. Ricker’s good friend and patient, Susan B. Anthony, returned home to Rochester from the National Women’s Suffrage Association convention in Baltimore in February 1906, feeling ill, unusually fatigued, and suffering from neuralgia. The eighty-six-year-old woman soon developed pneumonia, and Dr. Ricker was called to her bedside. By March 5th, double pneumonia had taken hold of the elderly woman, and it seemed there was little anyone could do for the famous suffragette. Marcena talked to the hovering press daily, giving detailed updates on her patient’s condition, rarely leaving Anthony’s home to care for her own needs. It was a challenge for the doctor and the two nurses to keep the patient quiet and limit the number of visitors clamoring to visit the critically ill woman. Finally, Anthony seemed to rally, her lungs were clear, and the doctor held out hope that her famous patient might recover. However, Anthony fell unconscious a short time later and died on March 13, 1906 from heart failure.

Later Life

Marcena kept up her practice of medicine her entire life, although as she grew older, the nighttime calls were delegated to other doctors. She and Wentworth had a long, happy marriage, always enjoying visits with family, friends, and entertaining at their Florida home. However, life changed abruptly in 1914 when Wentworth had a serious fall at the Winter Park home and broke his hip. The doctor arranged for train transportation back to Rochester and cared for her disabled husband at home until his death in 1926.

She began simplifying life by selling the Florida home after Wentworth’s death, remaining at the Lorimer Street residence. However, Marcena continued to serve the WCTU and traveled to Europe for international WCTU meetings and leisure. Her health was failing in late 1932, and in January 1933, she gave up her practice at age eighty-one. On January 17, 1933, Marcena Sherman Ricker, M.D., passed away and was buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery alongside her beloved husband. In a tribute to her long and exemplary service to the WCTU, Lois B. Stone honored her memory at a WCTU meeting in February 1933, saying, “She had a sunny and affable disposition and a fine sense of humor. No meeting was ever fruitless when she was present and any branch of the work undertaken by her was well done.” Dr. Ricker’s niece, Florence wrote, “Dr. Ricker was loved and respected by the great as well as the common folks. She was much sought for advice and counsel.” Others wrote of her leadership, charitable work, faithfulness as an active member of her church, and skills as a physician—certainly, a legacy to remember.


Biographical sketches by Florence Sherman

Castile Historical House Records

Rochester General Hospital History

Oldest City Woman Doctor … Dead, Democrat & Chronicle January 18, 1933

The Buffalo Times, March 8, 1906

Door of Hope History

Hussars of Mercy: The Gray Samaritans of 1919

Democrat & Chronicle, October 3, 1897

The Castilian, September 28, 1916

Wyoming County Times August 1, 1918

Federal Census, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1900

NYS Marriage Index

Civil War Pension Index

Albany Normal School Catalog of Students and Mt. Hope Cemetery Records Photos and Records

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