Statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health and hygiene, a woman standing on a platform overlooking a treed cemetery, dressed in ancient greek style dress.

Hygeia: Women in the Cemetery Landscape

We’ve all seen her. Hunched over the grave of an important poet. Standing meekly atop deceased philosophers, businessmen, and writers alike – head in hands and despairing. The Mourning Woman is a motif found throughout nineteenth-century Western cemeteries. She emerged during a revival of classical symbolism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gravestone iconography. She draws inspiration from “the mourning women” of ancient Greece and Rome, who prepared the body for burial and mourned the dead loudly and publicly.1 Despite her ties to these ancient cultures, she serves first and foremost as an archetype of the Christian Madonna – a matriarch dedicated to “upholding the virtue” of the household and carrying the albatross of grief at its loss.

But there was one “mourning” woman I encountered in the cemetery landscape who struck me as unique. She sat determined and poised, one foot stretched in front of her confidently stepping forward. This woman is Hygeia, an artistic representation of the Greek goddess of health and hygiene by the Black and Indigenous woman sculptor Edmonia Lewis. She stands atop the grave of woman physician Harriot Kezia Hunt in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hygeia in Mount Auburn’s landscape is the fulcrum between these two vastly different and fiercely independent female trailblazers of the nineteenth century. The sculpture can be easily overlooked, but it is a deeply rich source of history and symbolism that not only stands out as an icon of female authority in antiquity, but also of female resilience in Victorian America.

Statue of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health and hygiene, a woman standing on a platform overlooking a treed cemetery, dressed in ancient greek style dress.
Hygeia statue in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Harriot Kezia Hunt made her mark on nineteenth-century Boston in many ways, but most notably she was the first woman to apply to Harvard Medical School in 1847 and again in 1850. It was a long and painful affair for her, as she was denied entry to the school twice by the board of trustees and publicly humiliated by her male colleagues. Writing to them after her second denial, Hunt said:

When civilization is further advanced, and the great doctrine of human rights is acknowledged, this act will be recalled and wondering eyes will stare, and wondering ears will be opened, at the semi-barbarism of the middle of the nineteenth century.

And history proved her right: it took Harvard Medical School a century after Hunt’s application to admit the first class of women physicians to their ranks in 1945. Despite her exclusion from Harvard Medical School, Harriot Hunt continued to pursue practicing medicine.

The catalyst for Hunt’s life-long interest in medicine was her sister Sarah’s development of a grave illness in the 1830s that doctors all over their home of New England continually failed to diagnose. Despite their prescriptions of strong laxatives and aggressive bloodletting, Sarah only grew sicker and weaker.

In desperation, Harriot turned to a duo of self-described doctors of questionable repute (they had no medical degrees) to diagnose and treat her sister. Elizabeth Mott and Richard Dixon Mott made a splash in Boston in the early 1830s with the introduction of their “Vegetable Remedies” in advertisements across the city. The Motts successfully cured Sarah after she suffered from tuberculosis for three years. Hunt wrote in her memoir that watching Elizabeth Mott at work as a “female physician” was what inspired her to begin practicing medicine. Although Hunt never received a medical degree, she was widely successful with her patients, as she emphasized exercise and nutrition and was one of the few physicians who focused on women’s health.

Statue of a woman kneeling and hunched over, hiding her face, clutching a child.
Magoun monument provides a sharp contrast to Hygeia in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Across history, we repeatedly witness that, although women were the healers, the chefs, and the undertakers of the home, they were barred from practicing these talents in the professional and academic realm. In nineteenth-century American homes, it was common for women to employ homeopathic remedies for the ailments of their families and friends: boiled fennel for a sore throat, sarsaparilla and brown sugar tea for achy joints. On the pedestal upon which Hygeia stands, there are four plaques. One depicts a woman, seated with an open book and calmly tending to a medical beaker. Another depicts a woman holding flowers to symbolize botany as the healing salve of the domestic realm. In Hunt’s time, the shift towards professionalizing medicine led to more regulatory frameworks that systematically excluded women and rebranded practicing medicine as a male activity.2 The American art world of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would experience a similar reckoning with the emerging popularity of women and artists of color, who began to enter profitable artistic circles with narrow expectations of subjects, style, and composition.

Hygeia, sculpted by one of these emerging artists, is the female symbol of health and hygiene, and also a character in the original Hippocratic Oath that doctors of ancient and modern wisdom pledge to uphold. In Greek and Roman mythology, Hygeia was one of the Asclepiadae, a daughter of the god of medicine, Asclepius. Worship of Hygeia as an independent goddess rose in popularity after the devastating plague of Athens in 430–427 BC when the Delphic Oracle officially recognized her. How appropriate it is to see her stand atop Harriot Kezia Hunt’s final resting place with confidence and poise. She once held a staff, which we can only assume was entwined with two serpents, that has since been lost to time.

Beneath the surface there is a tongue-in-cheekiness about Hygeia – a figure who represents a culture of Western classical values that are often used as an excuse to discriminate, but who stands as evidence that women have long occupied the space of medicine, but were barred from taking that Hippocratic Oath.

In the final years of her life, Hunt sought out renowned sculptor Edmonia Lewis to create Hygeia in her studio in Rome. For this article, I had the pleasure of speaking with Marilyn Richardson, one of the foremost historians on Lewis’s life and work, who had also served as a former member of the Council of Visitors for the cemetery. Unfortunately, Lewis did not keep the most diligent notes and records for posterity and not much information exists about the creation of Hygeia. According to Richardson, there are various newspaper reports of Hunt visiting Lewis’s studio in Rome to discuss the creation of the monument. However, what is uncertain is whether Hunt had a firm idea in mind for the monument already or if the creative process was more collaborative between the two women.

Although Hygeia’s posture in the cemetery’s landscape is unique, the monument itself is not groundbreaking in its composition. As a neoclassical sculptor, Lewis was familiar with ancient Greco-Roman allegorical figures.3 Hygeia is understated in its political presence in comparison to other works throughout Lewis’s career. In her early career, she created neoclassical portrait busts of abolitionists, including Robert Gould Shaw of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment and John Brown. Later, her work would depict Black people breaking the chains of enslavement in Forever Free and a disheveled and sensuous Cleopatra in her final moments in The Death of Cleopatra. Author Charmanie Nelson wrote of Lewis’s choice to explore these topics through neoclassical sculpture:

It is hard to overstate the visual incongruity of the black-Native female body, let alone that identity in a sculptor, within the Roman colony. As the first black-Native sculptor of either sex to achieve international recognition within a western sculptural tradition, Lewis was a symbolic and social anomaly within a dominantly white bourgeois and aristocratic community.4

It is important, therefore, to contextualize Hygeia as a commission to memorialize Harriot Kezia Hunt first, and Lewis’s artistic expression second. Too often throughout her career, Lewis was forced to tailor her art to a majority-white audience, at the risk of them interpreting her work solely as self-portraiture. This balancing act was a fine and exhausting line between personal exploration and popularity in her field. In the case of Hygeia, a monument who united the two women as progressives in their fields, there is an important distinction to be made between Hunt, who celebrated her legacy with the sculpture, and Lewis, who was concerned with pleasing a client.

Richardson also notes that, for the young Lewis, securing the 1870 commission for Hygeia from a much older Hunt was an impressive career benchmark. Hunt was born in 1805 and Lewis was born about 40 years later in the mid 1840s. The generational gap between the two collaborators was immense and likely intentional on Hunt’s part. A staunch abolitionist and suffragist, it could be interpreted that Hunt, nearing the end of her life, saw an opportunity for the future lives and careers of women working in male-dominated industries. Hygeia is one more physical symbol of that progression: created for a woman physician and by a Black and Indigenous woman sculptor. The creation of the monument serves as a symbolic “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, in a touching exercise of hopefulness and optimism.

Notes

  1. Kerri J. Hame, “Female Control of Funeral Rites in Greek Tragedy: Klytaimestra, Medea, and Antigone,” Classical Philology 103, no. 1, (2008): 1–15. http://doi.org/10.1086/590091. Return to text.
  2. Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy & Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Return to text.
  3. Marilyn Richardson, personal interview, July 28, 2020. Return to text.
  4. Charmaine A. Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 26. Return to text.

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