Shades of Dubuque

Trappist Caskets: Dubuque’s Dr. Nancy M. Hill

Before Dr. Nancy Hill began practicing medicine in Dubuque in 1874 as the city’s first female physician and before she helped start an organization that would evolve into today’s Hillcrest Family Services, she had already made a name for herself as a Civil War nurse.

Nancy Maria Hill was born in West Cambridge, MA on November 17, 1833. Her ancestors had emigrated from Lincolnshire, England, and crossed the Atlantic in 1630, just ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Her family was among the Puritan aristocracy of New England. Four of her great-grandfathers fought in the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. Her great-grandmother Swan left home to nurse patriots as well as British soldiers and received a personal thank you from General George Washington.

Nancy was well educated – first in the public schools of her West Cambridge neighborhood. In October 1856, she enrolled in Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, MA, completing two years and six weeks of her third year before she was forced to withdraw due to ill health. Failing to graduate from Holyoke haunted Nancy for the rest of her life.

In 1916, she wrote, “I have great affection for dear old Holyoke, and if my life has amounted to anything, I thank Holyoke.”

In April 1863, 29-year-old Nancy left the comforts of home and joined the Volunteer Army Nurses at Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. Armory Square, built in 1862 on the National Mall, was one of the largest Civil War hospitals with 1,000 beds in twelve pavilions and overflow tents. Nancy did not receive a warm welcome. On her first day, Dorothea Dix, the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses, considered Nancy unqualified and ordered her to go home. But Chief Surgeon Dr. D. Willard Bliss intervened on her behalf and she was allowed to stay.

Nancy gained a reputation for sound judgment and bravery following the Battle of the Wilderness which was fought on May 5-6, 1864, in northeast Virginia. After the battle, some 250 wounded soldiers were transported to Armory Square Hospital. Since their papers hadn’t been forwarded to medical officers, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, perhaps thinking they were deserters, refused to admit them to the hospital. Dr. Bliss bowed to Stanton’s orders. Nancy opened the gates and convinced the guards to turn their backs so the soldiers could come into the hospital and receive care. Their papers and credentials arrived the following day, validating Nancy’s compassionate actions.

Nancy nursed casualties at Armory Square until September 1865, five months after the end of the Civil War. Dr. Bliss was so impressed with her skills that he encouraged her to study medicine. Nancy listened, returned to Massachusetts, and started reading widely to prepare for formal studies. She attended medical school in Boston from November 1871 to March 1872 and completed an internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children. Then she traveled west and enrolled at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor in October 1873, one of the only medical schools to admit women. In March 1874 at the age of 40, Nancy received her medical degree along with 65 men and 8 other women.

In April 1874, Nancy journeyed to Dubuque where she opened a practice in obstetrics on Locust St. In the aftermath of rapid industrialization and unstable social conditions in Dubuque during the 1890s, Nancy became concerned about young, unmarried mothers and their offspring who were often not receiving proper care and were generally shunned by society.

Nancy called together a group of women in the community, and they formed the Dubuque Women’s Rescue Society on February 26, 1896. The ladies secured four acres of land on Asbury Rd. with a twelve-room house and opened a home for unmarried mothers. Dr. Hill stayed actively involved with the home until 1909. In 1914, The Rescue Home closed to make way for the newly formed Hillcrest Deaconess Home and Baby Fold. The Baby Fold eventually developed into Hillcrest Family Services, an organization that offers services to men, women, and children.

Dr. Hill participated in many medical and civic organizations including the Dubuque Co., Cedar Valley, and Iowa State Medical Societies, The Shiloh Circle, Ladies of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic), and Ladies of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution). In recognition of her Civil War service, in 1892 Congress allotted her and other volunteer nurses a $12 monthly pension.

Dr. Hill retired from her medical practice in 1910. In the last nine years of her life she lived first with her sister in Dubuque and then with a brother in Chicago. She finally returned to Dubuque in 1913 and moved in with Martha Baker, a fellow member of First Congregational Church.

Near the end of her life Nancy humbly reflected on her accomplishments:

“My interests were temperance, rescue work among fallen women, and any cases that came into the life of a doctor. I never made a fortune. I was never married, never was a mother but brought about 1,000 children into this world. I have never written a book, have never lectured. I have worked in a humble way. I have done my part doing what was required of me, taking my place among my brother medics.”

In December 1913, Dr. Hill penned instructions to be followed at her death. She specified in what garments she would like to be buried as well as details for a quiet funeral at her beloved First Congregational Church. She requested that her fellow physicians act as pall bearers. Dr. Nancy Hill died at Dubuque’s Finley Hospital on January 8, 1919, at the age of 85 from complications of the flu. She was buried in Linwood Cemetery.

For more information on Hillcrest, see former Hillcrest President and CEO Gary Gansemer’s 2023 book, Reflections on Hillcrest Family Services, published by River Lights and available there or at Hillcrest.

This article is part of the Shades of Dubuque series, sponsored by Trappist Caskets, hand-made and blessed by the monks at New Melleray Abbey. More at

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