By Sarah Hill
Born in 1902 to Julia and Albert Hutchings Crosby of Hartford, Hilda Crosby Standish received her early education in the capital city’s public schools before attending Wellesley College, where she majored in zoology. After graduating in 1924, she earned her medical degree at Cornell Medical College, graduating third in her class—and one of only 11 women in her program.
Early Medical Career
Dr. Crosby interned at Philadelphia General Hospital from 1928 to 1930, after which she completed a one-year residency at the St. Louis Maternity Hospital in Missouri. Next, she accepted a five-year appointment in the Margaret Williamson Hospital & Women’s Christian Medical College of Shanghai. While in Shanghai, she taught obstetrics and worked in the hospital where she performed what is believed to have been the first blood transfusion in China.
In 1933, she left the hospital for the Peking Language School. She took a few months leave of absence in early 1934 and returned to the United States to help with a family medical issue. By the time her relative’s health had improved, Crosby was unable to return to China because the Japanese military had invaded Shanghai.
Defying Birth Control Laws
In 1935 Katharine Houghton Hepburn (actress Katharine Hepburn’s mother) recruited Dr. Crosby to serve as the medical director of the Hartford Maternal Health Center, the first birth control clinic in Connecticut. The clinic officially opened in July of 1935 at 100 Retreat Avenue in Hartford. Its financing came from private donors and included a generous gift from Lillian Morris Joseloff, a wealthy Hartford socialite.
The clinic was a bold undertaking because a still-in-force criminal statute instituted in 1879 made the use of prescription contraceptives illegal in Connecticut. Despite this, the clinic provided contraceptives and birth control advice. Its clientele was limited to married women who heard about its services by word of mouth and who could not afford private medical care. Open for five years, the clinic closed its doors in 1940 following the arrest of staff at a similar clinic in Waterbury.
A Life Dedicated to Women’s Reproductive Health
On June 25, 1936, Hilda Crosby married dermatologist Erland Myles Standish of Wethersfield. The couple had five children, and she decided that maintaining a full-time private practice in obstetrics would not leave enough time for her family. Instead, Standish led sex education classes for adolescents, couples entering into marriage, and parents (an effort she had begun while still directing the health center). Dr. Standish continued to teach these classes until 1969, when she retired from medicine. After her retirement, Standish served on community boards and as a trustee for the Hartford College for Women and Wellesley College.
Dr. Standish, a staunch supporter of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut since its founding in 1961, continued her efforts to legalize birth control. On June 7, 1964, birth control became legal in Connecticut. In recognition of her devotion to the organization and the struggles they had faced together, Planned Parenthood of Connecticut renamed its West Hartford site the Hilda Crosby Standish, MD Clinic in 1983.
Following the 1988 death of her husband, Dr. Standish sold her house and moved into the McAulay, a continuing care retirement community located in West Hartford. It didn’t take her long to become involved in their volunteer programs and chair their Health Committee.
During the 1990s, she wrote reminiscences of her early years, her views on aging and the birth control struggle in Connecticut. Her many awards included induction into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994 and receipt of the Wellesley Alumnae Achievement Award in 1998. She continued to live an active life, traveling the country and world and spending summers at the family vacation spot in Maine, well into the last years of her life. Dr. Standish died on June 1, 2005, at 103.
Sarah Hill is completing her master’s degree at Connecticut State University in Public History with an emphasis on material culture and historic preservation.