Doctor Martha Hughes Cannon (1857-1932), Utah suffragist, State Senator, and physician.
Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society, all rights reserved
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Martha Hughes was born in 1857 in Llandudno, Wales. Tragedy followed the family's three-month trip in a covered wagon
to Salt Lake City, when both Martha's sister and father died. At a young age, her thirst for education led to dreams of
being a doctor. By age fourteen, Martha was a schoolteacher. She soon learned typesetting skills, landing a position at
the Women's Exponent, a women's rights newspaper in Salt Lake City. She supported herself during her college years at the
University of Deseret (now the University of Utah), completing a chemistry degree. Her academic prowess earned her admission
to the medical school of the University of Michigan, from which she graduated as a physician at age twenty-three. Throughout
her college and medical school years, Martha was a "working girl" -- she washed dishes, made beds, and worked as a secretary
to support her education.
Martha entered pharmacy school at the University of Pennsylvania where she was the only woman out of seventy-five
students. Unconventional and out of fashion, she cut her hair short to save time and wore men's boots to keep her feet
dry during a period when women's fashions dictated undue discomfort and fuss. She was outspoken, dramatic, and often
intimidating for a young woman of her day.
At age twenty-five, Martha returned to Salt Lake City to pursue medical career. She established the first training school
for nurses and became a resident physician at the newly founded Deseret Hospital. There she met Angus Munn Cannon,
superintendent of the new hospital, and the couple married on October 5, 1884.
Shortly after the wedding, Angus was arrested by federal marshals for practicing polygamy, sending Martha underground
to avoid prosecution herself. With a new baby girl, Elizabeth Rachel, Martha hid in wagons traveling from town to town in
Utah to avoid arrest. She spent two years in exile in England when she learned that Angus had married his fifth wife. Her
marriage to Angus became more strained as the couple remained separated, though she longed to return to her home and husband
in Salt Lake City.
Dr. Cannon finally returned to Salt Lake City with a new commitment to women's rights and self-sufficiency. She threw
herself into the work of the Utah Equal Suffrage Association. By1896, Utah women had regained the right to vote through
passage of a suffrage clause in the new state constitution. The political life suited her so much that Cannon ran against
her own husband, winning the first woman's seat in the Utah State Senate in 1896.
Cannon's term in office was a success. She spearheaded funding for speech- and hearing-impaired students, establishment
of a state board of health, and a law regulating working conditions for women and girls. The birth of Cannon's third child
came at the end of her second term in office. Following her lawmaking career, Dr. Cannon served on the Utah State Board of
Health until she retired from public life to move to California.
At age seventy-five, Cannon died in Los Angeles on July 10, 1932. The Martha Hughes Cannon Health Building in Salt
Lake City was dedicated in her honor in 1986. The Utah Capitol Rotunda houses an eight-foot-high bronze statue of Dr. Cannon,
dedicated in 1996, one hundred years after her pathbreaking election as state senator.