Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Lily Owen Burbank, 1870-1943

By Meghan Fotak, undergraduate student, Simmons College

Lily Owen was born in approximately 1870 in New Jersey to two English parents. At the age of 18, she married, changed her name to Lily Owen Baker, and on February 19, 1891, she gave birth to her only son, Bertram E. Baker. It is unclear when her first marriage ended. In 1903, Lily Owen Baker graduated from Tufts University, receiving her M.D. On October 10, 1906, Lily married Charles Ellsworth Burbank. Her husband was a lawyer, active in the Republican party, and served in the Massachusetts State Senate in 1913 as one of two Progressives. Although both Lily and Charles were distinguished professionals, they never owned property, and throughout their marriage shared their rented apartment with boarders. Charles passed away on March 4, 1918.

Although Dr. Burbank's direct involvement with suffrage activism was brief, she dedicated her medical career to public health, with a consistent focus on women's health. She was a progressive woman who embraced many radical causes throughout her professional career, such as the study of venereal disease, adult hygiene, and women's education. With her husband Charles, suffragist Rev. Anna Tillinghast, and others, Burbank also founded a group called "The Fraternal Order of the Bee Hive." The Massachusetts government granted them the status of a corporation for the purpose of "maintaining a propaganda of progressive principles… and to cultivate fraternal and social relations between those principles; with power to establish subordinate hives or branches throughout the commonwealth."

In 1912, Dr. Burbank became the treasurer of a woman's suffrage organization, the Political Equality Union, which formed "for the purpose of favoring or opposing the adoption of rejection of a constitutional amendment striking the world 'male' from the qualifications of voters." The group disbanded in 1916, after which most members joined the Massachusetts branch of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). During a Woman's Christian Temperance Union meeting in Springfield that took place October 21-23, 1919, Dr. Burbank spoke along with Rev. Anna Tillinghast on suffrage and social purity, advocating the abolition of prostitution and other sexual activities that were considered immoral.

Although her leadership position in the Political Equality Union is the only evidence found that directly ties Dr. Lily Burbank to the suffragist movement, she enacted her progressive, suffragist principles throughout her career. She focused especially on advocacy for sex education, drawing on her professional credentials as a physician. Dr. Burbank worked for the State Department in public health as an epidemiologist and educational organizer, and director of educational work for women, from the venereal disease section, and later in the division of adult hygiene. The Association for Public Health elected Burbank as a member in November 1912. From that time through the 1930s, The American Journal of Public Health frequently published articles by Burbank. Announcements in local newspapers in 1917, 1919, and 1923 suggest that Dr. Burbank taught sex education to Girl Scouts.

She often spoke publicly about the need for sex education and about the prevention of venereal disease. In 1919 she took part in a meeting of doctors, public health nurses, suffragists, and the General Federation of Women's Clubs with the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Burbank entreated this assembly to teach sexual hygiene to mothers in particular. That same year, Dr. Burbank spoke about "Social Hygiene" at the Pittsfield annual meeting of the Massachusetts Parent-Teachers' Association, and taught nurses at the Hyannis Normal School about "problems dealing with different phases of health work." During the W.C.T.U. group conferences in Massachusetts in 1919, Dr. Burbank spoke "on the question of venereal diseases" in the place of a film, The End of the Road, which was withdrawn for fear that "too much truth may be dangerous." She gave a lecture on April 7, 1920 for a mother's club in Andover. In 1920, Dr. Burbank also became involved in a health committee of the Boston City Federation, which facilitated "lectures day and evening on different phases of public health in relation to the infant as well as the older boy and girl." On June 22, 1922, Dr. Burbank led a discussion on controlling congenital syphilis at an annual meeting of the Association of Women in Public Health, for which she was the chairman of the Committee on Transmissible Diseases. Dr. Burbank was the vice chairman of the Boston Health Exhibit Committee, which hosted the Massachusetts Health Exhibition on October 6-11, 1923. This exposition was "the most important of its kind ever undertaken in Boston." She also taught at Simmons College as a special lecturer in 1924. She retired in 1941 and died in Ohio two years later.

Dr. Burbank dedicated her medical career to focusing on women's health and carried out her progressive feminist work throughout her professional life as a member of the State Department in public health and many other Massachusetts health departments and clubs, always with a focus on women's health and venereal disease. She trained nurses and educated women and girls on social hygiene and venereal disease at colleges and through community involvement. Dr. Burbank's work on venereal disease was internationally recognized in a publication by The Eugenics Education Society in 1919, citing her "extensive social-hygiene campaign among women and girls in Massachusetts ... under Government auspices."


1910 United States Census, Waltham Ward, Middlesex, Massachusetts, Census Place: Waltham Ward 3, Middlesex, Massachusetts; Aril 15, 1910; Page: 2A; Roll: T624_606; Enumeration District: 1047; FHL microfilm: 1374619.

1930 United States Census, Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, family 88, dwelling 27, April 10, 1930; Page: 5B; National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.

American Journal of Public Health. v. 8, nos. 7-12 (1918).

American Social Hygiene Association, The Social Hygiene Bulletin, v. 8-9 (1921).

Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts. Massachusetts and Massachusetts General Court. v. 2. 1915.

"Cambridge Council of Girl Scouts." The Cambridge Chronicle, January 20, 1923.

"Dr. L.C. Burbank." Boston Globe, November 30, 1943.

"Eugenic Enterprise in the United States." The Eugenics Education Society, 1919.

"Health Campaign to be Given Wide Publicity." Boston Post, December 19, 1920.

Hedrich, A. W., Secretary. "Associated News." American Journal of Public Health, 1912, 928-29. Accessed November 5, 2016. Keyword: Dr. Lily Burbank.

Journal of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1915.

Journal of the American Medical Association. v. 79. (1922).

The Microcosm: The Simmons College Annual. vol 15 (1924).

"Mother's Club Notes." The Andover Townsman, March 5, 1920.

National Woman's Christian Temperance Union. The Union Signal: A Journal of Social Welfare. v. 45-46. SN 78001780. ISSN 0041-7033.1918.

"New Hampshire Necrology." The Granite Monthly: A New Hampshire Magazine Devoted to History, Biography, Literature, and State Progress (Dec. 1917/Jan. 1918), 63-109.

"Radio." American Journal of Public Health (August 21, 1931), 954-60

"Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan Brownell Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper. The History of Woman Suffrage. New York: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922.

State Department of Health. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Dept. of Public Health and Massachusetts. v. 6. 1919.

Tufts University Catalogue. Tufts University, 1903-1904.

The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. v. 180 (1919).

The Public Health Nurse, vol. 11, nos. 7-12 (1919).

The Union Signal: A Journal of Social Welfare, vol. 45-46.

U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007.

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