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More than a building: The life of Dr. Rachel Cooper

Dr. Rachel Cooper superimposed on building named for her

Dr. Rachel Cooper (top left) and the Illinois State campus building named in her honor.

For 18 years, Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) students in need of medical care visited the office of Dr. Rachel Merrill Cooper, the University physician and head of Student Health Services from 1929–1946.

Born in Potomac, Vermillion County, Illinois, in 1876, Cooper received her first M.D. in 1902 from the Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati and went on to receive her second in 1906 from the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical School. She did postgraduate work at Washington University, St. Louis, and at the New York Post Graduate School. From 1917–1918 Cooper worked as the surgical assistant in the Chicago clinic of Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, who was one of the few woman obstetricians in professional practice and the first female faculty member of the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

In 1898 Cooper married a fellow medical student, Dr. Charles J. Cooper, and finished her first round of medical school with him in 1902. According to her biography from the McLean County Medical Society, they practiced together for two years until his sudden death 1904. On May 21 of that year, he died at age 37 from septicemia contracted through “a cut on the finger,” leaving Rachel Cooper a young widow, pregnant with their only child, who was born October 19 and named Charlene Merrill Cooper as a tribute to the father she never met.

On May 21 of that year, he died at age 37 from septicemia contracted through “a cut on the finger,” leaving Rachel a young widow, pregnant with their only child, who was born October 19 and named Charlene Merrill Cooper as a tribute to the father she never met.

Following her husband’s death, Cooper remained in private practice in Penfield (Champaign County) before moving her practice to Danville from 1906–1909, and then to Aurora, Nebraska, where she spent much of the next 20 years. Newspaper articles from the 1910s and 1920s record her active civic and professional life. She delivered lectures for the meetings of the Chamber of Commerce, the Nebraska Association of Medical Women, and the Federated Women’s Clubs of Hamilton County, and was an active member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club of Aurora. In 1915 she traveled to San Francisco to attend the American Medical Association conference. In June 1924, the Lincoln Evening Journal (Nebraska) reported that she and a colleague, Dr. Daisy Hanson, traveled by car from Aurora to New York City for Hanson’s postgraduate work before returning to Nebraska later that summer: a trip of more than 2,000 miles in an era when auto travel was slow, arduous, and often risky.

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In 1929 at age 52, Cooper left her private practice in Aurora and returned to Illinois to take the position of ISNU university physician. During her tenure she was also an assistant professor of health education and served on the Curricula and Courses Committee and the Student Life and Welfare Committee. She also continued her professional and civic engagement as a member of the Normal Idlers Club as well as the Illinois State and the McLean County Medical Societies, and the American Medical Association.

Following her retirement in 1946, Cooper remained in Normal until the early 1950s when she relocated to Grand Island, Nebraska, to reside near the home of her daughter and son-in-law. In May 1960 the Illinois State Teachers College Board approved naming four campus buildings for former women faculty, professors, and deans: the newly built women’s residence halls for Alma M. Hamilton and Jeannie A. Whitten, the dining center for Mae Warren Feeney, the Metcalf School Auditorium for Wezette A. Hayden, and the Health Services wing of the Special Education Building for Cooper.

Cooper died in September of that year at age 84 and was returned to her hometown of Potomac to be buried next to her husband.

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