Historic Females: Dr. Belle Dora Curtis: Distinguished Physician, Dedicated Public Servant

By Michael Matarazzo

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a month-long series about noteworthy women in Everett, taken from vignettes written by former City Clerk Michael Matarazzo in his book ‘They Came from Everett.’ The histories of many female residents of Everett might surprise readers, as many of their stories have never been fully told. Matarazzo’s book is available at bookblues.com.

Belle Dora Curtis was born in 1857 in Bingham, Maine a town of about 800 people, even today. The town sits on U. S. Route 201 or the Old Canada Road, which from 1820 until 1860 served as the primary link between the old Province of Lower Canada that covered the southern portion of the current-day Province of Quebec, Canada, and the Labrador region of the modern-day Province of  Newfoundland and Labrador and Maine. 

Belle was the oldest of four girls born to Lafayette and Lucy (Raymond) Curtis.  Lafayette was originally a farmhand who work on the Smith farm in Bingham before being able to buy his own small farm. Belle’s mother died in 1870 at just 37 years old. With four daughters to raise and a farm to run, Lafayette married again rather quickly. His new wife, Lizzie, was 15 years his junior and only 14 years older than Belle.

People in Bingham were primarily farmers, though some worked in logging or in the sawmills. Though she loved Maine, Belle knew that there was only one way to have a better life and to see the world beyond Somerset County and that was through education.

After finishing her secondary education, Belle attended Western Maine State Normal School; one of two schools established in Maine at the time to train teachers to provide a quality education to children in Maine schools. It was commonly called the Farmington State Normal School.

Belle graduated in 1882 and took her first teaching position right down the road from Bingham in Solon. After Solon, she would leave Bingham and head south to Massachusetts accepting a new position teaching at the Greenwood School in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. She would teach in Hyde Park until 1891.

Belle was very frugal and saved much of her teaching salary so that she could enrolled at the Women’s Medical College of Baltimore, a for-profit school that was founded in 1882 by Baltimore women with the assistance of a few male doctors. On May 1, 1895, Belle was one of four women to graduate from the college. Dr. Curtis began her medical career in Lowell in a building on Central Street that now houses radio station WCAP.

It was widely known at the time the opportunities for female physicians were far greater in the city than in more suburban or rural areas. While Lowell had a population over 100,000, its medical community was pretty well established. This sent Dr. Curtis looking for a community where her practice could grow as the city grew and from 1880 to 1900, no city was growing faster than Everett. Dr. Curtis came to Everett.

In 1899, Dr. Curtis, most likely in need of funds to expand her practice was working around the clock. She rented 64 Norwood Street and opened a hotel with her youngest sister Lizzie and her husband. That same year, she was employed by City of Everett to examine female students with reference to vaccinations as part of the city’s school enrollment policy and for ensuring sanitary conditions in the schools. She also held office hours at the hotel from 9:00AM – 10:00AM, 1:00PM to 4:00PM, and 7:00 – 8:00PM.

By 1901, she was out of the hotel business and opened her practice in her new house at 609 Broadway. Dr. Curtis, who had been on the move since she left Bingham, was now calling Everett her home. Everett embraced Dr. Curtis and she became an active member of the Everett community. She served for years as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Everett Medical Society and served on the Parlin Library Board of Trustees with some of Everett’s founding fathers such Dudley Bailey and George E. Smith. Dr. Curtis’ intelligence and desire to make a difference in the young city won the respect and admiration of the entire community.

In 1879, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to allow women to vote for School Committee members. Everett had just become a town and elected two women to the School Committee in its first two years – Sarah J. Clough and Mary O. Bulfinch.

Despite being a member of the community for only two years, local Republicans nominated Dr. Curtis for a seat on the School Committee in 1901. Dr. Curtis won the seat. She held the seat until 1907 when she lost a close race but ran again in 1908 and no one was willing to challenge the popular doctor.

As a school board member, Dr. Curtis’ focus was on the health of Everett’s students, the quality of the teachers being hired and the need for more educational facilities. Everett was growing so fast that in addition to the 17 school buildings, some of which were too small and others outdated, the department was renting three storefronts as classrooms and holding some part-time classes.

Meanwhile by 1911, her practice was growing but she was getting tired. Dr. Curtis had served her patients and the people of Everett non-stop since her arrival in Everett over a decade ago. She had was so busy helping others and her community that it left very little time for a personal life.

Now, 53 years old, Dr. Curtis announced that she would not seek reelection to the School Committee. On December 15, 1911 at her last meeting, the School Committee thanked her for her valuable long-term of service to the Everett schools.

Dr. Curtis had met a physician from her home state of Maine named Joseph W. Perkins. Dr. Perkins was divorced and owned a farm in Wilton, Maine where he lived with his widowed sister, Josephine Fogg. Dr. Curtis and Dr. Perkins were married on September 3, 1912 in his hometown and semi-retired to the farm. Dr. Curtis died in 1935 and Dr. Perkins in 1937.

Dr. Belle Dora Curtis, in just over a decade, was a woman who made a lasting impression on the City of Everett as a trailblazing and distinguished physician and a dedicated public servant.

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