Rilla Grafton

No. 7

Our church has been blessed with a large number of remarkable women; Caroline Neville Pearre, Sarah Hart, Mrs. Guy Findly, Nita Adamson and Sally Smith, to name just a few.  I hope to write vignettes about some of them in the future, but today I want to write about a woman from our church of whom none of you have ever heard.  Her name was Rilla Grafton Hay.

Rilla Grafton was born in April of 1850 in Wellsburg, (West) Virginia, in the heartland of Alexander Campbell territory.  Her family may well have been charter members of our congregation but it is impossible at this late date to be sure.  John Condit Hay, a young man only a year or two out of college, came here in 1865 to become the third minister of our congregation.  He met here the young Rilla Grafton, and they were married on December 27, 1866, when she was only sixteen.

While some young women did attend college at that time, it was the exception and not the rule, and there were many barriers to women’s education.  The University of Iowa was one of the first state schools to accept women, but for a married woman to attend college was almost unheard of.  Nevertheless, Rilla was determined to get an education and she enrolled in the University of Iowa (one hopes with the enthusiastic support of her husband).  She continued her studies even after Hay resigned in 1869 to become State Evangelist for the Iowa Disciples of Christ, and when in 1871 he accepted the call to become minister of the Des Moines Christian Church (there was apparently only one at that time).  Rilla graduated from the Medical Department of the University in 1873 and commenced a medical practice in Des Moines that same year.  In 1876, John Hay accepted the ministerial call to the First Christian Church of Los Angeles.  Rilla then began her true pioneering career.  She was the first woman physician in California to be licensed by the state, and the first woman to practice medicine in Los Angeles.

In later years the Hays’s transferred their base of operations to Pueblo, Colorado, where John was pastor of the Central Christian Church.  The Colorado Medical Society had consistently and routinely refused membership to women, but Rilla Hay was a determined woman.  In 1888 the Society finally accepted her application for membership, the first woman in that all-male enclave.  Once a member, the Society recognized her exceptional abilities and talents, and in 1897 they made her one of their delegates to the American Medical Association convention.     While in Pueblo, Rilla served as the head of the gynecological department of the State Insane Asylum in Pueblo.  In addition to that she assisted in the establishment of the Pueblo Hospital for Women.

After living and working in England, Minneapolis, Denver, Colorado Springs, and Honolulu, the Hays returned in 1904 to southern California, where Rilla continued to practice medicine in and around the Los Angeles area until ill health forced her to retire.  She died April 7, 1921.

S.M. Bernard, writing in the Christian Evangelist, called her “a born physician.”  A fitting epitaph.