Friday, June 14, 2013

Pioneer Doctor of the West - Susan Anderson

by Anna Kathryn Lanier

Win a copy of my ebook SALVATION BRIDE. The heroine, Laura, is a medical doctor in 1873 Texas.  Just leave a comment to be eligible. I'll draw for a winner on or about June 20th.

Dr. Susan Anderson

The women of the west fascinate me.  The hardships they endured following either their men or their own hearts west are amazing.  They went and helped shape the west and the country as much, if not more, than the men.

Dr. Susan Anderson

One such woman was Dr. Susan Anderson, who practiced medicine in the mining towns of Colorado when women doctors were far and few between.

Susan Anderson, born in 1870, and her brother were both well-educated by their parents.  After her parents’ divorce, she moved with her father and brother to Kansas.  There she excelled in Morse code, but when she told her father she wanted to be a telegrapher, William told her to set her sights higher and become a physician.

After graduating high school in 1892, Susan followed her father and step-mother to Colorado.  In 1893 she enrolled into the University of Michigan’s medical school.  With the handful of other women in the school Susan attended the co-ed lectures, but the anatomy class was separated by the sexes.  The school did not think men and women should take this class together.

As Susan attended medical school, she also interned at the local hospital.  The hours were grueling and it was at the hospital that she contracted tuberculosis, a disease that plagued her the rest of her life.  After graduating in 1897, she turned down a position at the hospital and instead returned to Colorado to practice and to improve her health in the clean air.

Dr. Anderson with her father and brother

There were 55 other doctors in the area she settled, so she drew mostly female patients.  However, her proficiency in cleaning wounds and staving off infections—thus prevent amputations—grew her reputation as a good doctor.  The thriving practice and clean fresh air did improve her health, as did her engagement to marry a man she loved.

Tragedy struck twice, however, in a short amount of time.  First, her fiancée left her at the altar, breaking her heart.  Before she could pick up the pieces of her broken engagement, her beloved brother and best friend John died of influenza.  Dr. Anderson went into a deep depression and to help lift her spirits, she traveled Colorado.  Finally settling in Denver, she once again set up a practice, but with a glutton of physicians already in the area, the budding business floundered.  She then moved to Greeley and took a job as a nurse in the local hospital.

When a typhoid epidemic struck the area, she decided to leave for the good of her health and moved to Fraser, Co.  There, she decided to practice medicine again and opened shop. After proving herself a good doctor, her practice thrived.  “She mended bullet wounds, set broken limbs, and even removed abscessed teeth.”  She was so admired by the local loggers she treated that they built her a house.

Dr. Anderson became well-known throughout Colorado and the country.  Colorado General Hospital recognized her as an exceptional healer and Grand County, Co. appointed her as coroner.

As coroner, she held the commission of overseeing the blasting of a tunnel through the mountain accountable for any on-the-job deaths or injuries due to safety negligence.  When accidents did happen in the tunnel, she’d travel the six miles into the Moffat Tunnel to give first aid and retrieve dead bodies.

Dr. Anderson practiced for more than 50 years.  At age 88, she was hospitalized and lived the remainder of her life in Colorado General Hospital. After her death in 1960, she was buried near her brother in Cripple Creek, Colorado.



Further reading:

This article first appeared on Hearts Through History's blog Seduced by History on July 19. 2011

Anna Kathryn Lanier

Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. ~Doug Ivester 


  1. WOW what an interesting life. I know when I read about the women of the early west it amazes me how diverse they were and how strong they had to be to survive. Great story!

  2. Your book sounds wonderful. I'd love to read it.

  3. That a great post, Anna Kathryn. Dr. Anderson was a courageous woman and I'm glad to know about her.

  4. How sad for her to lose her brother and get jilted at the altar. I was surprised she didn't go with her mother. I can't help but wonder what that was all about.
    Great article.
    starcriter at yahoo dot com

  5. She was a beautiful lady, and obviously had a will of iron, too. I am amazed at the resilience and courage of our pioneer women. No doubt, our age, too, has such women--the first woman in space, for example.
    But am I reading this right? She graduated from high school at age 22? I read that part three times and still wasn't sure.
    Your novel sounds great--I hope it does really well!

  6. What a beautiful and brilliant woman she was! Thanks for sharing these interesting details. I am always reminded of what a weenie I truly am when I read about these couragous women of ages past.

    Best of luck with the book!

  7. Hi, everyone. I am so sorry I haven't commented earlier. I'm traveling to see family and my iphone won't let me make comments. I don't know why. I have the computer and internet right now so wanted to thank you all for stopping by. I love Dr. Anderson's story, but do wish she'd found a good man!

    Sarah, I don't know why she and her brother didn't go with their mother, but it is a wonder that they didn't, even the time.

    Celia, I'll have to double check my notes on Dr. Anderson and see about her age when she graduated high school. I wonder if it's because she did the telegraphing thing first, then decided to do medical school and had to graduate high school first, so she was behind? But, when I get home, I'll see what I can found out about that. I may have done a typo....

    Tanya, how funny! I think we react to the times and Dr. Anderson was just reacting to her time and what she wanted to do!

  8. Congrats to Charlene. She won my drawing and an ecopy of SALVATION BRIDE.


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