The Doctor Was a Woman: Stories of the First Female Physicians on the Frontier
“The stories in this little book offer entertaining adventures beyond history that has gone unrecognized.”
The Doctor Was a Woman: Stories of the First Female Physicians on the Frontier is a collection of biographical sketches of pioneer little-known female medical professionals. They played important roles in the development of the American West in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Author Chriss Enss’ 13 entries are each short but not in an encyclopedic style. The stories in this little book offer entertaining adventures beyond history that has gone unrecognized. A somewhat informal humanization of these professionals makes the reader want to know more about them.
This book starts with the qualifications of physicians of either sex. Academia and education were limited. Rightly, “settlers tended to trust the physician with practical experience over the academic.” Midwives with children of their own, for example, were sought, but women were considered too “fragile to learn” “anything but rudimentary pediatrics.” Not surprisingly, many of these medical professionals were born in this last American frontier.
This book explores how the frontier, with its midwives and homeopathic healers, encouraged females in medicine, including the Church of Latter-Day Saints, to recognize the value of women in medicine on the frontier. Aside from the dangers in that environment and the costs of the required education, women like Jenny Murphy had to also struggle to find an institution that would have a woman as a student!
Although the work of these special physicians was general practice on a wild frontier, often they at least trained under the groundbreaking and cutting-edge doctors of their time, including in dentistry, disease, ophthalmology, pediatrics, pulmonology, and surgery. Dr. Sophie Herzog’s unorthodox ways of treating gunshot wounds received widespread use, and Dr. Lillian Heath assisted Dr. Thomas Maghee in his pioneering plastic surgeries.
The field of medicine is always complicated and controversial, and in the late 1800s, America was no different. Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair, for example, became notable for her own research on the social aspects of sterilization. Elizabeth McDonald Watson, a nurse, created a sanitarium in Nevada that benefited thousands of people in the West with the widest variety of ailments.
The Doctor Was a Woman does not burden the reader with comparisons, complexities, density, or extensive narrative but makes its many important points in an easy, direct, entertaining prose. Even these short essays, however, have relevant addendums such as “The Smallpox Scare” and “Nurse Watson’s Medical Recipes.”
The book is a model for many needed works on the forgotten figures in American health care. Even as groups, these professionals do not tell a coherent narrative except as a way to understand the country and the times in which they lived, which is still important. The Doctor Was a Woman is appropriately illustrated, has annotation, and includes a bibliography.