Author pays tribute to JP’s “permanent resident” Susan Dimock in new book

By Bella Gonzalez

Forest Hills Cemetery was bustling on a recent Sunday afternoon, but for an unconventional reason: Susan Wilson, a local author, photographer and historian, celebrated the launch of her newest book, “Women and Children First: The Trailblazing Life of Susan Dimock, M.D.” on the property.

History buffs and community members alike filled the pews of Forsyth Chapel, where Wilson read excerpts from the book and was interviewed by Jackie Jenkins-Scott, the interim president of Roxbury Community College.

Wilson wrote a history column, “Sites and Insights,” for the Boston Globe for 18 years, which led her to discover the story of Susan Dimock, one of the first successful female doctors in the Greater Boston Area.

“Way back in 1995 when I had written the story in the Globe and became fascinated with Susan, I discovered that her gravestone was at Forest Hills Cemetery,” she said.

Dimock, endearingly referred to as a “permanent resident” of Jamaica Plain by Wilson, was born and raised in Washington, North Carolina, and relocated to Boston after attending medical school at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

As chief surgeon and a resident physician at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, Dimock founded “the first real, professional training program for nurses in the United States,” Wilson said.

“It was the second hospital in the United States where women doctors treated women patients,” she added.

The hospital still stands but has since been renamed the Dimock Community Health Center in her honor.

Dimock died in the shipwreck of the S.S. Schiller near the Isles of Scilly in 1875 at the age of 28. Her legacy lives on through Wilson’s research and writing.

After giving a presentation about Dimock in 2015, Wilson said her audience had one unanimously pressing question for her: “Where’s the book?”

Thus, the idea for “Women and Children First” was born.

During her Nov. 12 interview with Jenkins-Scott, who, among other accolades, served as the president and chief executive officer for the Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury for nearly 20 years, Wilson said she has worked tirelessly to learn everything there is to know about Dimock since 2016.

She traveled both nationally and internationally, seeking out documents and records from local institutions such as Harvard University and Smith College, but attributed much of her success to her involvement in Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, where she was assisted by pre-medical students.

“I applied [to the center] with the idea of writing this as an actual book, and I was accepted,” she explained during the interview.

Wilson and Jenkins-Scott took time to discussed Dimock’s impact on the Greater Boston area and the path she paved for women in medicine locally.

“The Dimock Center continues to play a vitally important role in health care for women and children in this community,” said Jenkins-Scott.

After fielding a few questions from audience members, Wilson took time to signed copies of her book before leading the group to Dimock’s grave.

Mary Smoyer, a member of the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, joined Wilson and others on the short walk through the cemetery. 

The Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, which co-sponsored the event with Forest Hills Cemetery, honors historical women such as Dimock through educational tours and presentations.

“We believe that the way to really learn about history is to get out there, walk with the women, see where they worked, see what their houses looked like, and get a feeling for their sky and their earth,” said Smoyer.

The grave, which sits atop a small hill, was redone in the 1990s, a passion project initiated by Wilson, who learned that the original stone was made from a type of marble that could not withstand acid rain. 

Wilson recited a poem she wrote about Dimock in preparation for the event.

A small crowd gathered around the grave, admiring the epitaph, which first appeared on the original headstone:

“Being made physician in a short time, she is remembered a long time.”

Bella Gonzalez is enrolled in a Boston University College of Communication Reporting in Depth class, which focuses on community reporting.

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