A physician who paved the way for later generations of Wayne County women now will be recognized through the naming of a highly traveled bridge.
Area residents are invited at 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, to watch the christening of the Dr. Mary F. Thomas Bridge at South West First and Main streets, just west of downtown Richmond.
The bridge, currently known as Main Street Bridge, will be closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day for preparation and cleanup after the ceremony.
Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch is among the speakers who will dedicate the 200-pound bronze state historical marker honoring Thomas, who lived from 1816 to 1888.
Wayne County Commissioner Mary Anne Butters said Thomas was “so ahead of her time” in contributing in many ways to benefit not only Richmond and Wayne County but also the nation through her advocacy for medicine, public health, women’s voting rights and the end of slavery.
Thomas rose to national prominence as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association after serving as president of Indiana’s organization. She co-edited The Lily, the first U.S. newspaper edited by and published for women.
In 1859, she was the first woman to address Indiana General Assembly. Her petition calling for a married women’s property law and suffrage amendment to the state constitution weren’t taken seriously at the time, according to a biography of Thomas prepared by Morrisson-Reeves Library staff.
“She was never able to vote, but historians credit her with being the most influential woman in Indiana in the early efforts to win women’s right to vote,” Butters said.
During her childhood, the Maryland native lived in Washington, D.C., briefly, and her father took her to hear debates in Congress, sparking her interest in politics.
Beyond her suffrage activism, Thomas also was a leader in medicine. She and her husband, Dr. Owen Thomas, practiced on Fort Wayne Avenue. She focused on obstetrics and caring for women and children, but also served as Richmond’s city physician.
At the request of Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton, Thomas traveled to Vicksburg, Mississippi, during the Civil War to take supplies to the front and care for wounded Hoosier soldiers. Thomas also worked alongside her husband, an Army contract surgeon, in a hospital for refugees in Nashville, Tennessee.
Thomas was the second woman physician admitted as a member of American Medical Association, and Butters is hopeful that this attention could inspire more young people to consider a medical career.
Additionally, Thomas was a pioneer in social services. She advocated prison and hospital reform. Inspired by her patients’ needs, Thomas cared for patients at the Home for the Friendless for more than 20 years, serving those who’d experienced domestic violence or homelessness.
In addition to all those accomplishments, Thomas raised a daughter, Julia Irvine, who became the fourth president of Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
Butters said Thomas is widely respected throughout Indiana, and the commissioner has attended many Indianapolis meetings where participants were surprised by Wayne County’s lack of celebration for Thomas’ achievements. When Butters took office, she began working to change that.
“She was a great leader, but in her quiet, modest Quaker manner, she never sought celebration of her achievements,” Butters said. “We feel her recognition is long overdue.”
Commissioners oversee Wayne County bridges that aren’t on state or federal highways. Butters and former commissioners Denny Burns and Ken Paust already voted to dedicate the Richmond bridge in Thomas’ honor, intending to plan a major celebration on Aug. 26, 2020.
That date was significant as the 100th anniversary of the certification of the U.S. constitutional amendment allowing women to vote. Congress eventually designated Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day.
However, COVID precautions squashed those plans. Butters said the extra time spurred her to begin raising money for a historical marker to be placed near the bridge’s southwest corner.
“I think it will be a celebration of her life and vital contributions to health and wellness, respect for women and freedom for African Americans throughout America,” Butters said of the bridge dedication.
Indiana Historical Bureau will install the marker with assistance from Wayne County Highway Department. Its $3,500 cost is sponsored by Wayne County Convention and Tourism Bureau, the city of Richmond, William G. Pomeroy Foundation and Wayne County Commissioners.
In addition to Crouch and Butters, speakers will include Beth Fields, Richmond’s director of strategic initiatives; Anita Morgan, an Indiana University history professor, explaining Thomas’ prominence in Indiana and the nation; Sue King, Morrisson-Reeves Library archivist, describing Thomas’ local impact; Michella Marino of Indiana Historical Bureau, who notes the historic marker’s prestige, and Wayne County Engineer Brandon Sanders, sharing the bridge’s history.
Bridge to be closed for ceremony
What/when/where: Richmond’s Main Street Bridge will be closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, as it is christened the Dr. Mary F. Thomas Bridge.
A free public ceremony will take place at 1 p.m. at South West First and Main streets.
Access: Those attending can access the bridge by sidewalk or bike. Drivers are encouraged to park along or near West Main Street or in county or city lots at WellCare, 203 E. Main St. or Richmond Municipal Building, 50 N. Fifth St., near the bridge’s eastern entrance. Handicapped accessible parking will be available on the bridge by entering from the east.
Additional resources: Learn more about Thomas at mrlinfo.org/history/biography and through the book “We Must Be Fearless: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana” by Anita Morgan, sold at Old National Road Welcome Center, 5701 National Road E., Richmond.
A version of this article appeared in the August 23 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.