When we think of the American West, we usually think of cowboys, covered wagons, cattle drives and Indians. One thing people sometimes fail to take in consideration is the role of women. We mainly think of women who are portrayed in “Little House on the Prairie” and other popular ‘western books/shows’ where the women had defined roles in society and weren’t expected to drift from these roles of being a wife and mother. The show “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman” is about a female doctor, which people think is only fiction due to the belief that there were no women doctors in the west. I have collected a couple of historical documents about female physicians in the American West that prove otherwise.
In 1897 a woman by the name of Susan Anderson graduated from Medical School at the University of Michigan and opened up her own practice in Cripple Creek, Colorado. She moved from Cripple Creek, to Denver, to Greeley and finally settled down in a tiny mountain town of Fraser, Colorado1. She moved so often because in every town, people refused to see a woman doctor. Even her father said it was no place for a woman to practice medicine. In 1907 when she finally settled down in Fraser, she kept her medical degree a secret. People soon found out that she was a doctor and she ended up treating just about everyone, even an occasional animal. She did not own any type of transportation – not even a horse but that didn’t stop her from treating her patients. She mainly performed house calls in which she would sometimes walk in freezing temperatures to get to her patients. “Doc Susie” as she was known, treated many locals during the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. She also treated numerous men who were injured during the construction of the Moffat Tunnel in the Rocky Mountains. She eventually was asked to become the Grand County Coroner. “Doc Susie” was rarely paid in money, she was mainly paid in food, firewood and other items. She continued to use her medical degree until 19562. She is just one example of a woman who didn’t let the social expectations of a woman in medicine get in the way of her doing what she loved.
Mollie Babcock Atwater was a woman physician who worked at the mining camp in Bannack, Montana. Mollie and her husband, Frank Moore were married for 10 years and she had always dreamed of becoming a doctor. Before she got her degree, her father- in- law took objection to the fact that Mollie wanted to become a doctor3. He said that women were too frail and delicate to work in medicine. Pushing her father-in-law’s “encouraging” words to the back of her mind, Mollie attended the Women’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago.4 Even though Mollie was living her dream being a doctor and having a practice with her husband, it was not what she had hoped for. Frank was completely in control of the practice and herself. Although he supported her decision to become a physician at first, he quickly resented her when she graduated and was on the same professional level as him. She not only threatened him as a man, but also challenged the role of women in the American West. Mollie had to ask him for everything; a tomato for cooking, money to buy something at the store, he even refused to let her patients pay for her work, instead taking compensation for himself. He controlled all the money and pretty much everything Mollie did. She finally got up the courage to leave Frank, and head alone to Salt Lake City by train. She had wanted to move west because it was a beginning, not only for her but for all of the settlers. Mollie had an expectation that the new settlers were much more open minded than they were in the East would accept her being a woman of medicine. When Mollie arrived in Salt Lake City, she stayed at a ladies boarding house until she could find work. At this time, the Mormon Church controlled most jobs and so it was very difficult to find a job as a doctor because the Mormons had a strict policy that women were nurses, not doctors. As it would be today, it was very hard for Mollie to support herself with no employment, which almost resulted in her giving up her dream and settling to become a nurse. That was until her friend was able to find her a job as a doctor in the mining town of Bannack, Montana. She was not only the community physician in the mining town, but acted as a community advocate and a public health worker. Mollie eventually found a husband who supported her occupation and they both moved to Helena where she was an advocate for women’s rights and suffrage.5
Another example is Mary Rowland, who was one of the first woman doctors in America, and one of the few to practice in the West. Mary started to compile memoirs in the 1930’s and completed a book of her experiences. She practiced medicine during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the Great Depression. Her day to day life consisted of delivering babies, helping cancer patients, doing dentist work and treating other injuries as well. As a young girl, Mary had her mother to look up to, who delivered babies and took care of the child and birth mother for $5 a week.6 Her mother’s occupation was the start to her interest in medicine. Mary ended up marrying her school teacher, Walter Rowland who became a doctor shortly after he ended his teaching career. While they were married, Mary would help Walter and read his medical books out of curiosity. She was in love with the human body and anatomy and with her husband’s full support, she went to medical school in Kansas. Sadly, her husband was murdered shortly after she gave birth to her daughter. After the birth, Mary continued with their medical practice and was the first doctor in her town to use the diphtheria antitoxin. Mary’s case was very different from the other woman doctors I have listed, because she had support from her own father and husband, which helped build her confidence.
Dr. Marie Equi was an independent Oregon physician in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Marie was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts and besides being a physician, was an advocate for women’s suffrage. At a young age, 3 of her siblings died as a result of diseases and she observed her mother as she was involved in pregnancy and taking care of children. Before Mollie and her friend left for a new life in Oregon in 1892, she had to drop out of high school to help support her family by working in the textile mills. Later, Marie moved to San Francisco for medical school and received her degree in 1903 from the University of Oregon. She was one of 5 women to graduate in a class of 60 male students. Marie ended up owning a practice in Portland, where she treated working class women and children for free. She also provided food and shelter for the unemployed as well as provided abortions to women of all economic classes. She lived romantically with a woman for 15 years, and they ended up adopting a baby girl together. During her time in practice, she was also very involved with the woman’s suffrage movement, fighting and protesting for woman’s rights. In this time, not only was it unusual and sometimes uncomfortable to be treated medically by a woman, but it wasn’t socially acceptable for women to interact romantically with other women either. Dr. Equi had a lot of courage to do not one, but both of these things in a time when most people weren’t very accepting. As a result of Marie standing up so strongly for the things she believed in, and living her life the way she wanted despite being scolded by society, she was imprisoned nearly a year in San Quentin Prison. She was finally released in 1921 and ended up giving up her medical practice in 1930 due to health reasons and passed away in 1952.7
So as you can see, these daring women, along with many others, encouraged and paved the path for more women to enter the medical field. If these women didn’t endure the “struggle to succeed” they would not have changed history the way they did. In the times that these female physicians lived, in order to be a “good woman” in the West – cooking, cleaning and tending to chores/children is what your day consisted of. Very few women worked outside of the home and if they did, they were mainly school teachers or sometimes nurses. The books, movies and stories we hear today about the West like to keep our idea of women in that perspective. That is the main reason why these women are sort of forgotten about and why the myth of there being only male doctors exists.
By: Mikayla Barber
1” Susan Anderson, Mountain Doctor. Colorado Virtual Library.” Colorado Virtual Library. July 13, 2015
2“Susan “Dr. Susy” Anderson – Frontier Physician.” Susan “Dr. Susy” Anderson – Frontier Physician. Accessed October 29, 2015.
3 Grana, Mari. Pioneer Doctor the Story of a Woman’s Work. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2005.
4 Grana, Mari. Pioneer Doctor the Story of a Woman’s Work. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2005.
5 Rowland, Mary Canaga, and F. A. Loomis. As Long as Life: The Memoirs of a Frontier Woman Doctor, Mary Canaga Rowland, 1873-1966. Seattle, Wash.: Storm Peak Press, 1994.
6 Rowland, Mary Canaga, and F. A. Loomis. As Long as Life: The Memoirs o a Frontier Woman Doctor, Mary Canaga Rowland, 1873-1966. Seattle, Wash.: Storm Peak Press, 1994.
7 Helquist, Michael. “Marie Equi (1872-1952).” Marie Equi (1872-1952). Accessed October 29, 2015.