Mary Lawson Neff

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Mary Lawson Neff
BornDecember 4, 1862 Edit this on Wikidata
Bellwood Edit this on Wikidata
OccupationNeurologist and psychiatrist

Mary Lawson Neff (December 4, 1862 – November 1, 1945) was an American neurologist, and the first woman psychiatrist practicing in Arizona.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Mary Lawson was born in Bellwood, Pennsylvania in 1862, the daughter of Orr E. Lawson and Mary Marshall Lawson. She earned an undergraduate degree at Wilson College.[2] She was in her thirties when she started medical school in 1896. She finished her medical degree in 1900 from the State University of Iowa, with further studies in psychology with psychologist Carl Seashore.[1]


Mary Lawson Neff briefly had a medical practice in Iowa before moving to Arizona in 1905, for her daughter's health. In 1907 she moved back east, to join the staff at Cornell Medical College's outpatient neurology clinic. She lived and worked in Massachusetts, New York,[3] and Illinois[4] then returned to Arizona, as the state's only working neurologist. During World War I she chaired the Women's Committee of the National Council of Defense in Phoenix.[5] She lobbied on behalf of the Arizona Medical Association in the state legislature for various public health issues, and helped pass the law that led to the founding of the Arizona Children's Colony. She was invited to speak to the Arizona State Teachers' Association convention in 1916.[6]

Neff was a proponent of eugenics.[7] She judged "better baby" contests,[8] consulted nationally on institutional policies,[9] and published a short book titled Mental Hygiene (1904), which mainly explored the effects of fatigue on mental and emotional health, especially in children, and recommended occupational therapy. "'Being bored' is a really depleting experience," she declared, "and if long endured is not devoid of danger to an already exhausted nervous system." And elsewhere, "The tendency to exalt the trivial, common among neurotic people, is mischievous."[10]

While living in the Southwest, Mary Lawson Neff took a side interest in Native American folklore, and collected stories from Pima and Tohono O'odham children at state schools.[11]

In 1925, Dr. Neff moved to Los Angeles, California, where she worked with the UCLA Extension and spoke to women's groups.[12] She published several more papers in the journal California and Western Medicine in 1928 and 1930, the last one showing her address as "Hotel Trinity."[13]

Personal life[edit]

Mary Lawson married Francis Neff in 1888, in Bombay, India. They had two children, Dorothy and Philip.[2]

Dr. Neff died in 1945, age 82.[14] There is a small collection of her papers archived by the Arizona Historical Society.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Mary Lawson Neff Papers, 1885-1935, Arizona Historical Society.
  2. ^ a b John William Leonard, Woman's Who's Who of America (American Commonwealth Publishing 1914): 592.
  3. ^ "To Entertain Patients" Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 25, 1909): 10. via Newspapers.comopen access
  4. ^ "Mary Lawson Neff Comes to Illinois" Institution Quarterly 5(1914): 21.
  5. ^ "Will Open Night School To Teach Foreigners the Rudiments of Patriotism" Mohave County Miner (September 14, 1918): 1. via Newspapers.comopen access
  6. ^ "Closing Session of Teachers Convention" Arizona Republic (April 15, 1916): 5. via Newspapers.comopen access
  7. ^ Mary Lawson Neff, "Better Babies: How Scientific Health Contests Have Made Possible Much Advancement" Arizona Public Health News 5(2)(1916): 10-13.
  8. ^ "Eminent Doctor to Referee Baby Show" Weekly Journal-Miner (September 15, 1915): 4. via Newspapers.comopen access
  9. ^ "Provide Work to Insane Patients" Des Moines Register (March 19, 1914): 3. via Newspapers.comopen access
  10. ^ Mary Lawson Neff, Mental Hygiene (Swift, 1904): 12, 23.
  11. ^ Mary L. Neff, "Pima and Papago Legends" Journal of American Folklore 25(95)(January to March 1912): 51-65.
  12. ^ "Program for Woman's Club is Outlined" Santa Ana Register (September 4, 1929): 5. via Newspapers.comopen access
  13. ^ Neff, Mary Lawson (October 1930). "The Radicular Syndrome Following Infection with Tetanus: Report of Case". California and Western Medicine. 33 (4): 742–744. PMC 1657567. PMID 18741537.
  14. ^ "California Death Index, 1940-1997" database, FamilySearch (26 November 2014), Mary Lawson Neff, 01 Nov 1945; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento.