West Coast’s first female M.D. lived in Oregon
After Bethenia Owens divorced the frontier slacker she'd married at age 14, she went on to become one of Portland's most influential and respected professionals.
By Finn J.D. John — August 14, 2010
Maybe it’s for the best that Legrand Hill turned out to be such a lousy husband. Had he not beaten his wife and whipped their baby, George, Bethenia Hill would likely not have dumped him and gone on to become the West Coast’s first mainstream female physician* — and the women’s suffrage movement would have lost one of its brightest stars.
Bethenia’s decision to leave Legrand was the more remarkable because she was just 18 when she made it, after four years of marriage. Also, this was 1858, and divorce was simply not contemplated. When she left, the neighbors were scandalized.
You may be a lazy person if ...
Not that they were likely very surprised. Legrand was, by all accounts, astonishingly lazy, and the only thing he showed a real talent for was hunting. After he lost their farm to foreclosure, her parents gave them some land and built the shell of a cabin on it for Legrand to finish out with things like a floor and a chimney and cooking area. It remained in that condition for years, and Bethenia had to do all the cooking and domestic chores outdoors.
But she put up with it, and possibly with some physical abuse as well — until the day he “whipped my baby (who was around 24 months old at the time) unmercifully, and struck and choked me.” Then she was gone, and so was little George. Within a year or two she was divorced, with full custody and her maiden name back.
Back to school
Suddenly at loose ends, Mrs. Bethenia Owens started leaving George with her mother, where the little tyke played with his young aunts and uncles, and going to school. A few years later, she was actually teaching a class of 16 students — two of whom were more advanced than she (“I took their books home with me, and with the help of my brother-in-law, I managed to prepare the lessons beforehand, and they never suspected my incompetence,” she wrote later).
Up from nothing, one piecework job at a time
But teaching and the grueling schedule of piecework jobs — chiefly laundry and sewing — were a means to an end for Bethenia. By working hard and being very thrifty, she saved up enough money to launch a dressmaking and millinery business in Roseburg. This business became very successful, and generated enough money for her to send George to the University of California-Berkeley when he was just 14.
Bethenia discovers a taste for medicine
Once he was off to college, so was she. One of the skills she’d picked up in her life was medical — nursing was, in that age, grueling and unappreciated work, easy to get and hard to do, precisely the kind of work a driven person like Bethenia would take to fill an unexpected gap in her schedule of piecework jobs. Along the way, she discovered she liked medicine.
So in 1870, she handed the Roseburg business off to a younger sister and headed east, to a medical school in Philadelphia, one which taught “eclectic” medicine. She returned a year or so later (medical school, in the 1870s, was somewhat less lengthy than it is today, although not necessarily less arduous) and opened a medical practice.
Although 1870s medicine was a bit of a Wild-West kind of thing, eclectic medicine was not the mainstream, and its favor was already fading. When young George graduated from Berkeley, she did not consider an eclectic college for him; she sent him off to Willamette University, and two years later he was an M.D.
Forging a family tradition
Then she herself went out to get a “real” degree. After being turned away from several of the medical-college “boys’ clubs,” she found a place at the University of Michigan, and in 1880, after two years of study, she got it.
Introducing Dr. Bethenia Owens, M.D.
Dr. Bethenia Owens, M.D., was ready to take the place she’d earned in the society she had, in a very real sense, conquered. She became one of Portland’s most well-known citizens, a good friend of Abigail Scott Dunaway and a powerful force for women’s suffrage.
She went on to marry Colonel John Adair in 1884, and changed her name to Owens-Adair. He seems to have been a problem for her; he spent her money as fast as she earned it on ill-considered and dreamy schemes.
She retired from her practice in 1905 and, after moving to Warrenton, died in 1926 at age 86.
The dark side: Eugenics and forced sterilization
A modern person will probably find just one major negative thing in Bethenia’s story. Like many others of her era, she also was a believer in the “science” of eugenics. She became a powerful voice for forced sterilization, and her advocacy bore fruit in 1925, when the state adopted a statute establishing a eugenics board. In the 60 years after that, some 2,600-odd criminals and people deemed “feeble-minded” or insane had their reproductive organs stripped out, an episode for which then-Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a formal apology in 2002.
(Sources: Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1990; Johnson, Dorothy M. Some Went West. Lincoln, Neb: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997; Oregon Historical Society Website; Kitzhaber, John. “Proclamation of Human Rights Day,” Oregon State Archives, Dec. 2, 2002)
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*The first female non-mainstream physician on the West Coast also practiced in Oregon — Dr. Adaline Weed, a hydropathic physician and hygienic lecturer in Salem, in 1858 — although she subsequently moved to Seattle.