Dr. Edith MacBride Dexter

Dr. Edith MacBride-Dexter was born at Grove City, Mercer County May 3, 1887, the daughter of Robert and Ellen (Bigler) MacBride. She received her early education in the public schools, graduated from Grove City College in 1906 with the degree of Bachelor of Science, and from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1919 with the degree of Doctor of Medicine. Her education also included special laboratory work at the University of Pittsburgh in 1916, post graduate work in eye and ear surgery in London and Vienna in 1925 and 1927, and later in Philadelphia and Boston.

Edith MacBride Dexter

She engaged in the general practice of medicine in Grove City until 1917, during which time she was physician for girls at Grove City College, instructor of nurses at Grove City Hospital, and medical inspector of schools in the district. She left Grove City in 1917 to become Chief Resident Physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Erie, and take charge of the practice of Dr. G.W. Schlindwinis during his absence at a Base Hospital during World War I. She returned to Mercer County in 1919, and from then until January 1935 practiced ophthalmology in Sharon, and was a member of the staff and Training School Committee of Christian H. Buhl Hospital and ophthalmologist to the Sharon plan of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.

A member of the Mercer County Medical Society, Medical Society of the State of Pennsylvania (Past Vice-President), American Medical Association, State and Provincial Health authorities Association of North America, and the American Public Health Association.

Dr. MacBride Dexter was appointed Secretary of Health by Governor George H. Earle, January 15, 1935, and was the first woman appointed to the highest position in that Department.

She was instrumental in the development of the first statewide diabetes and cancer control plans and championed tuberculosis prevention and treatment.

Under her leadership, the Department used federal Social Security funds to purchase mobile field units that could perform tuberculin skin tests and x-ray examinations to name earlier diagnoses among younger and rural citizens.

Edith MacBride Dexter 2
Dr. MacBride Dexter during a visit to the Sanatorium at Mont Alto, June 1937.

Dr. MacBride Dexter also was not satisfied with Pennsylvania’s tuberculosis sanatoriums, built in the early 1900s, which were run-down, understaffed, and technologically obsolete. She adopted what was known as the “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Plan for Tuberculosis” which rebuilt and expanded Pennsylvania’s existing sanatoriums and opened a new sanatorium at Mont Alto to serve Western Pennsylvanian. One doctor wrote that Dexter’s plan gave “assurance that the facilities thus afforded will give the maximum benefit to the people of small income in the State of Pennsylvania.”

After the facility at Hamburg was expanded under her watch, the Department wrote that it was now “a miracle house wherein…many persons are wrenched from the jaws of death and given the opportunity for new life.”

During her term as Secretary, Dr. MacBride Dexter ensured that the Department’s progress eliminating deadly diseases in the state continued. Through her support of children’s immunizations, maladies such as smallpox and yellow fever were practically eradicated. In 1937 she wrote: “Fifty years ago one may have dreamed of the eventual disappearance of some of the diseases which had claimed and were continuing to take thousands of lives each year. The discoveries of germs causing some of these diseases, which were beginning to be made at about this time, might have justified notions so extravagant, but would no doubt also have earned for anyone who might have seriously published them a reputation for unwarranted optimism.”

The Department of Health benefitted during this time from increased funding from the federal government, which Dr. MacBride Dexter quickly used to start new in-service training programs and create divisions of maternal and child health, health conservation, industrial hygiene, and dedicated health services for “crippled children.” New programs to train nurses for special care of venereal diseases were also established during her tenure.

After her tenure as Secretary ended in 1939, Dr. MacBride Dexter returned to private practice and lived the rest of her days in Mercer County. She passed away in 1958.

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