Stories of Utah Women: Dr. Ellis Reynolds Shipp

Maren Peterson History

The story of Ellis Reynolds started in 1847 in Iowa. Her family converted to the LDS church and moved to Utah when she was five years old. In a speech about her early life, Ellis relates one of her strongest memories of the trip. One of her fellow travelers, Sister Winters, contracted cholera and died. Ellis’s grandmother was the nurse of the patient, and her father built the coffin for Sister Winters. Ellis remembers standing with her grandfather watching the men dig the grave on the side of the trail. Her father carved Rebecca Winters’s name into a discarded wagon wheel and placed it on the grave as a makeshift tombstone.

Ellis and her family arrived in Utah in 1852. Her family settled in Pleasant Grove where they lived until her mother died when Ellis was 14 years old. Her father remarried and they were called by church leaders to settle Sanpete County, well over a hundred miles south of Salt Lake City.

While there, Brigham Young and a few other brethren from the church came for a conference. Ellis was selected to be Brigham’s dance partner that night, a fact which she was very proud of. At the end of the conference, she received a marriage proposal from one of the men in the company, but she was reluctant to accept. Brigham proposed another idea. He knew she was fond of studying and invited her to live with his family and take advantage of the teacher, Karl G. Maeser, that he employed for his own children. Ellis accepted.

After moving to Salt Lake, she met and married Milford Bard Shipp in 1866. He had been married twice before: one wife had died, and the other had divorced him. Brigham Young advised against the marriage, but Ellis had her mind set. A few years later, Bard took more wives in the LDS practice of polygamy. He married Margaret Curtis in 1868, and Elizabeth Hilstead and Mary Smith in 1871. 

A few years later, Brigham Young asked for volunteers among the women to study medicine in the east. Ellis had a strong feeling that she should go. Her husband encouraged her, telling her that he would make sure their five children were taken care of. Her sister wife, Mary, who had no children herself, cared for Ellis’s children while she was at school. 

Photo used by permission of the Utah State Historical Society

Ellis studied at Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania. During her first year she worked so hard she became ill. Her professors and her husband urged her to go home for the summer. She spent that summer with her family and came back for her second year of school pregnant. She finished her education in 1878 with a baby girl in her arms. Bard and two sister wives followed in her footsteps and also became doctors. 

In 1878, after returning to Utah, Ellis established Ellis Reynolds Shipp’s School of Obstetrics and Nursing. She taught hundreds of women midwifery and prepared them to become nurses. A former student recalled,

We were so poor. Mothers and new-born babies were dying all around me. I thought if I could just study in Doctor Shipp’s class and become a nurse and midwife, I could help my family and do some good in the world. And I talked it over with my folks but they said, “Why you can’t do that. It costs fifty dollars. You haven’t any money. Besides you have a crying baby in your arms. Who’ll take care of that?” I went to see Doctor Shipp. And she put her arms around me and said, “Of course you can come. You don’t need any money. Come, I’ll help you!” And I went. And she held my squirming baby on her lap, while she lectured to us, so I could take the notes. I never paid her a cent, not even any eggs. I loved her.

Ellis, her husband Bard, and a sister wife, Maggie, established a magazine about medicine titled Salt Lake Sanitarian. The purpose of the magazine was to inform Utahns about basic medicinal treatments and to keep everyone updated on the newest discoveries in medicine.

Later in life Ellis published a book of poetry titled Life Lines. In her poetry she explores the themes of love, family, and the tenuous line between life and death.

Scatter your flowers in the paths of the living!

Now! While they may enjoy the perfume!

Give while warm lips may respond to the giving,

Wait not to strew them on bier and on tomb!

(“Scatter Sweet Flowers”)

She never stopped teaching medicine. She died at the age of 92 from cancer.

Department of Health. Office of Vital Records and Statistics Death certificates, Series 81448.


Shipp, Ellis Reynolds. Draft of Autobiography and Diary of Ellis R Shipp. The Ellis Reynolds Shipp Papers, 1875-1955. Utah State History.

Shipp, Ellis Reynolds. Life Lines. Harvard College LIbrary. Jul 1 1914.

Shipp, Ellis Reynolds. Sketch of My Early Life. The Ellis Reynolds Shipp Papers, 1875-1955. Utah State History.

Shipp, Ellis Reynolds. Women in Medicine. The Ellis Reynolds Shipp Papers, 1875-1955. Utah State History.

Zeidler, Thomas J. Doctoring on the Western Frontier. Utah State Historical Society.