By Paty Jager
I came across Bethenia Owens-Adair when I was researching female doctors for my book Doctor in Petticoats. I needed accounts of female doctors in the 1800’s. Bethenia stuck out in my memory because of not only being a female doctor in a time when there were few, but she was also a divorced woman and one who had overcome many hardships to fulfill her dream.
In 1859 she married LeGrand Hill in Roseburg, Oregon at the age of fourteen. By sixteen she’d given birth to her only child and became a divorced woman at the age of nineteen.
A quote from her autobiography, Dr. Owens-Adair; Some of Her Life Experiences (1906) “I was, indeed, surrounded with difficulties seemingly insurmountable, __a husband for whom I had lost all love and respect, a divorce, the stigma of which would cling to me all my future life, and a sickly babe I my arms, all rose darkly before me.”
Her greatest assets were her innate optimism, stamina, and her refusal to be a victim. Her courage to leave an abusive marriage, provided for herself and her son and gain an education to become one of the first women to practice medicine in Oregon has made her an icon of many women over the years.
Most of her life was spent in the Pacific Northwest, but she was born in Van Buren County, Missouri, the second of nine children. When she was three, her family migrated to Oregon Country. They first settled in the Clatsop Plains in 1843 and later moved to the Umpqua Valley across the river from Roseburg.
Bethenia was small- 5 feet 4 inches. She’d always wished to be a boy and until the age of twenty-five would not be outdone by her brother in wrestling or feats of strength. “…I realized early in life that a girl was hampered and hemmed in on all sides simply by the accident of sex” She was one of the first women libbers.
When a man took liberties when she was thirteen and washing clothes she used the long broom handle she was stirring the wash with and beat him until her mother pulled her off. Her words to the man, “You little skunk, if you ever dare to come near me again, I’ll kill you”
But she was not immune to men and being wooed. She married LeGrand Hill, one of her father’s farmhands. He turned out to prefer hunting and reading to working and after the divorce when asked why she left her husband Bethenia said “ Because he whipped my baby unmercifully and struck and choked me,—and I was never born to be struck by mortal man”
When she divorced Bethenia knew she’d be protected by her parents but she was an independent woman and was determined to provide for herself and George, her son. She reclaimed her maiden name and worked washing clothes, sewing, and taught school so she could complete her education. She moved around but ended up back in Roseburg in 1867 and started up a successful dressmaking and millinery business for six years.
This is where she became involved with the temperance and woman suffrage causes. She was a friend of Abigail Scott Duniway and became a subscription agent and regular contributor to Duniway’s woman’s rights newspaper the New Northwest located in Portland, Oregon.
After her son attended college Bethenia entered medical school. She enjoyed nursing the sick. There were only a few options for a woman to enter a medical school. She was admitted to Eclectic Medical College in Philadelphia. The institution trained sectarian practitioners as homeopaths, hydropaths, and eclectics. When she told family and friends of her enrollment they were strongly opposed. Women weren’t doctors!
While her family, including her own son, opposed her becoming a doctor, her dear friends Jesse Applegate, an early Oregon pioneer encouraged Bethenia to study medicine. In 1873, she arranged for George to board with Duniway and work on her newspaper, and then Bethenia headed east. A year later she returned with her medical degree and opened an office in Portland. She specialized in care of women and children.
In the fall of 1878 she enrolled in the University of Michigan’s Medical School. Even her dear friend Jesse Applegate thought it was foolish to leave a profitable practice to return to school.
But Bethenia wanted a medical degree from a reputable institution. She received that degree in 1880 at the age of forty. She then spent that summer of clinical and hospital work in Chicago and did postgraduate work at Michigan and toured European hospitals. She returned to Portland and her new specialty was diseases of the eyes and ears with the majority of her patients still being women and children.
She married Col. John Adair, a graduate of West Point, in 1884. She birthed a child three years later at the age of forty-seven but he child only lived three days. They adopted two boys and lived on a farm near Astoria for eleven years where Bethenia had a general practice as a country doctor.
By 1899 rheumatism drove Bethenia to a better climate, She and her husband moved to North Yakima, Washington where her son, George, was practicing medicine. Bethenia retired in 1905 and the next year her autobiography was published. Her husband died in 1915 and she followed him September 11, 1926 at the age of eighty-six.
Bethenia Owens-Adair was a testament to what a woman can attain if she has a mind to. Every time I read her story it makes me proud to know there were women before me who stuck to their guns and went against society to better themselves.
Pacific Northwest Women 1815-1925 by Jean M. Ward & Elaine A. Maveety
Dr. Owens-Adair; Some of Her Life Experiences (1906) by Dr. Owens-Adair