Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows

Barrows, Isabel

Notable Facts

First woman eye doctor. First woman to work as a Congressional stenographer. First woman secretary to a head of the U.S. State Department and one of thefirst woman editors to win fame as a social reformer.

Personal Information

Date of Birth


Date of Death


Primary Residence






Historical Significance

Isabel Hayes Chapin Barrows was a woman of many firsts - first woman to work as a stenographer for Congress; first woman to become private secretary to a head of the United States State Department; first woman eye doctor and one of the first woman editors to win fame as a social reformer.

Born in Irasburg, Vermont on April 17, 1845, Barrows was the third child of Dr. and Mrs. Hayes. She was two when the family moved to Hartland. Barrows' two older sisters, Lizzie (died when Isabel was ten) and Hattie and a younger brother and sister, Willie and Ephie, were raised in a comfortable home and loving atmosphere. The children were expected to share in household tasks and the many chores involved in subsistence farming. Along with those responsibilities, the children also attended a local school and were fortunate enough to have their recitation and written school assignments further augmented by music lessons from their mother.

At the age of eleven, Barrows often accompanied and assisted her father with his medical house calls. Her parents were forward-thinking and impressed upon all of their children the value of a good education and the recognition of one's abilities regardless of male or female, "Your mother and I both believe girls should do whatever they're capable of doing..." It was shortly thereafter that an incident at school, in which young Willie was falsely accused of a disturbance in class and subjected to corporal punishment, prompted the Hayes family to locate a new practice for Dr. Hayes and a new school for the children. They found both across the border in Londonderry (Derry), New Hampshire.

Barrows enjoyed her studies, first at the Pinkerton Academy and then at the newly reopened Adams Academy, where she earned her tuition by performing janitorial duties (sweeping, laying three fires each day and ringing the school bell every morning at eight) before and after classes. After graduating from Adams Academy in June, 1862, Barrows accepted an invitation from her friend, Charlotte Chapin, for a visit to Andover, Massachusetts. It was during this visitation that she met her soon-to-be husband, William Chapin, Charlotte's brother and a student at Andover Theological Seminary. While William finished his studies, Barrows prepared to teach botany classes at Mount Holyoke. However, her mother's struggle with tuberculosis had taken a turn for the worse and Barrows headed home to help with her care.

On September 26, 1863 Barrows married William Chapin in Derry, New Hampshire - Barrows' mother died a few days later. After the funeral, Barrows prepared herself for her husband's first missionary assignment - ten years in India. Once there, she immersed herself in the language and customs of the area. Barrows transformed a mud-walled house into a welcoming home and soon after found herself pregnant with their first child. Unfortunately, she suffered a miscarriage and weeks later Chapin himself succumbed to diphtheria. In the Spring of 1865, a broken-hearted Barrows returned to New York.

At loose ends in New York City, Barrows checked in with the Office of the Missionary Board and soon connected with her brother, Will, who was then working for Dr. James Caleb Jackson in his medicine-free health sanatorium in Dansville, New York. Eager to someday return to the mission field as a physician, Barrows accepted a position with Dr. Jackson and assisted with foot baths, bath service and breakfast trays for bedridden patients. It was here where she met her second husband, Samuel June Barrows, Dr. Jackson's secretary and also inventor of his own personal shorthand method.

After an unexpected breakfast conversation, it was clear that Samuel's eventual hope was to be a Unitarian minister, while Barrows still longed to study medicine. Because neither had the means to get married, they instead arranged a betrothal ceremony in which they promised to financially and emotionally support each other as they worked to achieve their respective personal goals.

During this betrothal period, Samuel worked as a shorthand reporter, taking notes on lectures in shorthand and then transcribing them for various New York newspapers, and soon encouraged Barrows to give paid talks on her experiences in India in churches and Sunday schools. Barrows also began to assist her betrothed, “by clipping items from the afternoon editions and rewriting them for the morning papers.” This last undertaking was soon expedited by Barrows’s mastering Samuel’s shorthand techniques.

At this time in order to further her education, Barrows also applied to Bellevue Hospital as a medical student. Even though she was informed that they did not accept women into the medical program, she asked and was allowed to sit in on lectures and classes, with the understanding that she, most likely, would not receive permission to actually graduate. Despite initial harassment and uncomfortable classroom situations, Barrows soon proved herself to be a competent and worthy student of medicine.

On June 28, 1867, Barrows was married to Samuel June Barrows by Unitarian minister Henry Ward Beecher at Beecher’s home in Brooklyn. Simultaneous with their wedding, Samuel was offered a job in Washington as private secretary to William Henry Seward, Secretary of State -- the newly-married couple could not refuse the $1600 annual salary. Barrows continued to study anatomy and shorthand on her own and taught the infant class in a mission school for black children.

Later that hot, tropical summer, Samuel came down with typhoid and Barrows became, out of necessity, the first woman to work in the State Department. When Samuel eventually returned to his position later that summer, Barrows resumed her medical studies at the Woman’s Medical College in New York City, founded by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, and later attended and graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School. Upon achieving her medical degree, Barrows opened an office on F Street and performed eye examinations, cataract surgeries and prescribed glasses. She worked afternoons at the Freedmen’s Hospital or taking shorthand notes in Congressional Committee meetings at the Capitol while Samuel finished his divinity studies.

Their lives were soon changed again with the arrival of their only daughter, Mabel Hay Barrows, in 1873. After a family trip to Europe in 1875, Samuel received his first post as pastor at Meeting House Hill. In 1880, Samuel left his pastorate for the Editor’s position at The Christian Register, with Barrows as Associate Editor. The paper generated a wide variety of local, national, and foreign news articles and controversial issues of the time. Daily luncheons were instituted for collaboration with potential contributors and supporters – problems were aired and solutions unfolded.

In 1885, Barrows and her husband adopted their nephew, William Burnet Barrows, infant son of Barrows’s brother, Will, whose wife had died in Kansas during childbirth. It was also at this time that Barrows was struck by a brainstorm to have a summer camp for their children and friends from other nations. The location for their camp was ten miles from the little town of Magog, Canada on the banks of Lake Memphremagog. For more than twenty-five years the Barrows family returned to their camp each summer and shared food, lodging, bonfires, games, plays and conversations with children and adults from different parts of the United States and Europe.

As the years passed, Mabel was married to Henry Raymond Mussey, a professor at New York University, at the family’s summer camp, Samuel served one term as Congressman from Massachusetts and Barrows was actively involved with The National Conference of Charities and Correction, The Prison Association of New York and secretary of the Lake Mohonk Conference (Indian affairs). She also traveled to Russia to try and intercede on behalf Catherine Breshkovski “the little woman of the Russian Revolution,” who had been imprisoned in solitary confinement for two years prior to her trial, sent to Siberia and then spent twenty more years in exile, only to be imprisoned again -- for the crime of teaching the peasants on her estates to read.

In 1909, while Barrows was in Russia, Samuel died of pneumonia. She returned home for the funeral and then decided to return to Russia to complete her unfinished task. Sadly, however, Barrows was unable to convince the Russian Minister of the Interior to release the old and frail Breshkovski. She returned to the United States and at her children’s request wrote the biography of Samuel James Barrows, "A Sunny Life", and collaborated on "The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution" with her niece, Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of women’s rights activist Lucy Stone. Barrows’ unpublished autobiography, "Chopped Straw or The Memories of Threescore Years", was an unexpected, but useful, source for Madeleine B. Stern’s biography of Barrows, "So Much In A Lifetime: The Story of Dr. Isabel Barrows."

In 1913, the year Barrows’ biography of Samuel was published, Mabel gave birth to a son named June, in honor of Samuel’s middle name. On October 25th of that same year, Barrows died in Mabel’s arms.

Organizations or Movements

  • National Conference of Charities and Correction
  • The Prison Association of New York
  • Lake Mohonk Conference


  • Missionary
  • Congressional Stenographer
  • Reporter for various New York newspapers
  • Associate Editor, The Christian Register


  • University of Vienna Medical School, Doctor of Medicine

Additional Information (Bibliography)

  • Stern, Madeleine B., "So Much in a Lifetime: The Story of Dr. Isabel Barrows". New York: Julian Messner, 1965.