Stories of Frontier Settlement Doctors
In the late 19th and early 20th century, medicine in the settlements of the Pacific Northwest was often carried out far from a doctor’s office. In order to obtain treatment, settlers living on isolated farms, ranches and in mining or logging camps undertook a long and sometimes arduous journey. A minor injury or a common complaint could become an emergency or result in death solely because of the lack of proximity to medical help.
If a settlement was lucky enough to have a doctor living within a day’s journey, settlers often expected the doctor to come to them. Nonetheless, someone still had to be sent to notify the doctor that help was needed.
Doctors traveled long distances on foot, on horseback, in wagons, buggies, ferries, canoes and boats. Traveling to a settlement might be a cross country journey on nothing more than an unmarked trail. The doctor’s bag was designed to carry the tools of the trade and withstand travel in all sorts of weather. Bags of durable oiled canvas or leather stood up to extended travel, whatever the season and terrain.
Rural doctors were general practitioners by necessity. They delivered babies, set broken limbs, pulled teeth, and tended to all sorts of wounds and diseases. They often created their own medications, as well as many of the instruments they used.
The rural family doctor was well known in the community and was often considered the most valuable asset in the area. They most probably delivered every child in the community, and sat with the dying as they drew their last breath. They saw people into and out of this world and in the meantime tried to keep them alive and healthy.
Rural settlers often had nothing to pay with except the fruits of their labor. Doctors would commonly be paid in cord wood, produce, meat, eggs, blankets or other items of value. The doctor was a family friend and might know more than anyone about any given person or family in the region. When a settlement doctor passed away, it was cause for great mourning.
Bethenia Owens-Adair, a pioneer physician, moved to Oregon from Missouri in 1843, and lived both in Astoria and Roseburg. She earned her medical degree from the Eclectic Medical College in Philadelphia in 1874 and in 1880 she finished her M.D. at the University of Michigan Medical School.
She returned to Oregon in 1881 and set up a successful medical practice in Portland. Later, she moved to Astoria where she continued to practice medicine and help with the family farm.
Dr. Owens-Adair described in her book, Bethenia Owens-Adair: Some of Her Life Experiences, what it was like on one of her home visits in Astoria: “I carried on my professional work as best I could in that out-of-the-way place; and at no time did I ever refuse a call, day or night, rain or shine. I was often compelled to go on foot, through trails so overhung with dense undergrowth, and obstructed with logs and roots, that a horse and rider could not get past; and through muddy and flooded tide-lands in gum boots.
“One day a Mr. William Larsen came, saying, ‘My wife is sick. Come at once.’ There was a most terrific southwest storm raging, and we had a mile to go on foot over the tide land before reaching the Lewis and Clark River. The land was flooded, the mud and slush deep, and the swollen sloughs had to be crossed on logs and planks. Nearly the whole distance was overgrown with enormous bunches of wire-grass, many being three feet across. This long, intertwined grass was a great obstruction to walking and I fell prone, again and again, before reaching the river. My boots were filled with water, and I was drenched to the skin. The wind was howling, and dead ahead. Mr. Larsen was a powerful man, and a master-hand with oars. He sprang into the boat throwing off his hat, two coats, and began to remove his outer shirt saying: ‘You must excuse me, Doctor, but if I ever get you there, I shall have to strip to the skin.’ I understood the situation, and knew that the odds were against us; and I fully expected that, notwithstanding his uncommon strength and skill, we would be compelled to land far below our starting point on the opposite side.” Thinking that she would have to cross the land to the Larsen house, they were saved by a small launch that came out to meet them in the raging storm to carry them the rest of the way. By the time they arrived, the wife had survived the crisis point, and so had Dr. Owens-Adair.
“I had most of my practice in that section,” she wrote, “and made many trips to that neighborhood.”
Carl Julius Hoffman entered UOMS in 1902; he was a dedicated young student who served as class president and graduated with the highest standing in his class. After an internship, he accepted an offer to take over the practice of a Dr. Longaker in Woodland, Washington. Within a week, he set up practice in the town with seven saloons and one church. Included in the deal he struck were a buggy and a team of horses, Trix and Pet.
Dr. Hoffmann bought a saddle horse to use when the roads became impassable. He had an office in the Bryant Building, where he practiced for 62 years. He lived next door to his upstairs office, carrying water and cutting his own for wood for heating and cooking. Earle Bryant, who became a fast friend, had a pharmacy on the first floor. In the absence of a nurse, Earle would serve as anesthetist. Many of the injuries sustained in the mills and logging camps required immediate onsite surgery. Bryant remembered that there were some very tense moments in those days.
Hoffman’s fellow classmate and colleague, Dr. J. B. Blair of Vancouver, WA, wrote about Dr. Hoffman, “He has seen all of life’s panorama, from the cry of infancy to the parting sigh of old age. He has had no hour he could call his own. No room in his home has been exempt from the imperative call. The darker the night the more howling the storm, the more likely was he to be needed and aroused from slumber to go to the bed of suffering. He has borne all temperatures, sweating in August suns, freezing in December blasts. Drowned with the rains and choked by dust he has trudged here and there, hungry at noon, sleepy at midnight, while others, oblivious to care, were resting or being refreshed by food or sleep.
To accumulate worldly goods in not and has never been Dr. Hoffman’s objective. No other person in the community has or could have sacrificed so much to charity as he. He has done all the good he could to all the people he could in all the ways he could, with little regard for remuneration, or ever keeping foremost in his mind that which is just, that which is honest, that which is true. These precepts have governed his life.”
George Weirs King was born in 1852  in the state of New York. He was the ninth of the ten children of Revolutionary War Veteran Cyrus King of Vermont, and Louisa Duncan. He graduated from the medical department of the University of Michigan in 1877. He served as assistant surgeon at the university one year; practiced in Kempton, Illinois for two and a half years, in New York for one year; and then went to Chicago.
While in Chicago, Dr. King suffered a severe attack of pneumonia. After his recovery he was offered the position of surgeon at Marysville for the Montana Mining Company. He believed that the climate would prove beneficial to his health, so he accepted, arriving in 1883. He was committed to his position with the company, but he also maintained a general practice in Marysville and the surrounding country. In the 1880s and 90s it was a bustling town of three thousand residents, and was the center of gold mining in Montana.
Dr. King invented many appliances for his use in surgery and general practice. One was a device in which to set fractured limbs, and another was used to place injured men while raising them out of the mines. He took pride in surgery, and performed many difficult and important operations.
In 1892, he filed a patent with the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. for a fracture apparatus. “My invention is designed to obviate this difficulty by providing a portable apparatus by means of which the operator, without the aid of an assistant, can apply and maintain proper extension and counter-extension of, and support for, the broken limb, and, at the same time have free access to every part of it for the convenient application of the splints or bandages,” he wrote.
Dr. King served his patients faithfully until his death in 1929. His scrapbook is filled with vivid images of his inventions and the patients he treated from a child who swallowed a penny whistle, men who suffered various injuries in the mines, club feet to necrosis of the skull.
James W. Robinson and Ella Ford Robinson ~ Ella Ford was born in about 1857 to Colonel Nathaniel Ford, who had settled in Rickreall in Polk County in 1844. Along with her younger sister, Angela, they were the first women to graduate from the Willamette University Medical Department in Salem. Ella married fellow medical student James W. Robinson (1850-1938). When James graduated in 1878, the couple moved to Jacksonville, Oregon and opened a drugstore associated with his practice. Dr. Ford Robinson opened her own office, becoming the first woman physician to practice in southern Oregon. A notice in the Ashland Tidings read, “Dr. Ella Ford Robinson–diseases of women, a specialty. Office and residence at Judge Duncan’s, Jacksonville.”
She barely had an opportunity to practice in Jacksonville; she died in childbirth not a year later. But James Robinson stayed in Jacksonville where he carried on a busy practice.
Jacksonville became the cultural and commercial center of the region after gold was found in 1851 but conditions continued to be difficult for doctors and patients. In his memoirs, Dr. Robinson remembered that there were no phones; in the case of an illness or an injury, those in need of a physician would have to send a hired hand at the end of the work day for help. Many trips were fifty to 100 miles or more on bad roads through all sorts of weather.
Jacksonville was a pioneer town. Abigail Scott Duniway a leading force in the suffragist movement writes of visiting Jacksonville: “I went to Southern Oregon in 1879, and while sojourning in Jacksonville was assailed with a show of eggs (since known in that section as "Jacksonville arguments") and was also burned in effigy on a principal street after the sun went down. Jacksonville is an old mining town, beautifully situated in the heart of the Southern Oregon mountains, and has no connection with the outside world except through the daily stagecoaches. Its would-be leading men are old miners or refugees from the bushwhacking district whence they were driven by the Civil War. The taint of slavery is yet upon them and the methods of border-ruffians are their heart's delight. This is where Dr. Robinson carried out his career until his death.
Dr. Robinson was known as the last of the Jacksonville pioneer doctors. When he arrived in this small village, he felt he had found his paradise. He carried on his practice in Jacksonville until his death having cared for families for miles in all directions.
Mary Purvine began her life as the daughter of New England Quakers. With one brother dead and another practicing law, Mary learned to do the farm work as well as take care of the household chores. “Thin and straight”, she said she was raised to know only that “it was a sin to lie, and that the worst thing in the world was a drunkard.” When her mother’s arm was fractured by a fall, a woman doctor came to set the bones. Mary announced immediately that she would become a doctor. She entered the Willamette University Medical Department in Salem, Oregon and graduated in 1899, the only woman in a class of four men.
After graduation, she set up a practice in Condon, Oregon, a town of 800 inhabitants. She tells this story of great danger and bravery: A man from a distant ranch located on the other side of the John Day River drove ten miles to the nearest phone to tell the doctor of the imminent birth of a child. Traveling five hours by horse and wagon in a blinding snow, Dr. Purvine and her driver descended into 30 Mile Canyon where they came to the river, traversing it by ferry. The ferryman gave directions to the ranch, located on a nonexistent road. Arriving at the “one room and lean-to,” she found the woman had already given birth. All was well with the mother and baby, but there was the still the return trip to be made.
The ferryman was nowhere to be found when Dr. Purvine and her driver arrived at the river. A fourteen-year-old boy took them across, but landed with feet to go from the bank. Storm clouds were gathering, and more snow threatened. A swift slap of the reins sent the horses up the bank, leaving the wheels of the buggy in the river. After more tries, the wagon and horses lurched safely onto solid ground. The team needed to traverse an eleven-mile ascent before reaching the canyon. When they reached the flat, one of the horses gave out. The driver urged the horses on, finally finding the way to a house where they took an hour’s rest and some food. With little time left, they reached what they thought was the descent to the canyon, but they found only trackless snow. Using a lantern, the driver traipsed round and round until he finally found the way. Seventeen hours later, they made their way gratefully back to Condon.
The parents named their girl baby Mary in her honor. “She was cross-eyed and had a mean disposition,” said Dr. Purvine, “and she wasn’t paid for until after I was married, when we had installments consisting of a bushel of tomatoes weekly. No wonder I don’t care for sliced tomatoes.”
Esther Pohl Lovejoy and Emil Pohl ~ Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy was born in 1869 and grew up in a logging camp near Seabeck, Washington Territory and later lived in Portland, Oregon. For a while, she could not decide between a career in theater or medicine but she eventually chose medicine saying it was “drama in its highest form.”
The woman doctor who delivered Lovejoy’s youngest sister became an inspiration for her to enter the University of Oregon's Medical School. Taking a year off to earn money, she finished in four years and graduated in 1894 with a medal for her strong academic achievement. Esther married classmate Emil Pohl and followed him to the Gold Rush in Skagway, Alaska, where her brothers were suppliers to gold prospectors. They lived a log cabin with a fireplace for warmth and candles for light. As the new doctors in town, their services were constantly in demand. Dressed in fur against the cold, Dr. Pohl made the rounds of her patients by dog sled. If she needed to drive far from the town, she engaged a native boy who knew the country.
The Pohls started a hospital in an old mule shack. With the help of a renowned gambler who went by the name of Soapy, self-proclaimed “King of the Klondike”. Soapy invited the new doctors to speak to a crowd of bushy-haired men in Soapy’s saloon. After the speech, a hat was passed and over $3,000 in coins, dust and pledges was gathered. The Union Church of Skagway offered to sponsor the hospital and with their help, the old shack was restored, cleaned and painted. When it was finished it served only for surgery and serious cases. Most of the doctoring took place far from town.
On Christmas Day, Dr. Pohl’s brother Fred entered the town celebrations to demonstrate the usefulness of a bicycle in the snow. Two friends followed by dog-sled to make sure he could make it to the pass and back.
The three were never seen alive again; they were murdered on the Skagway-Dawson Trail. The Mounties found the bodies of Fred’s friends first. His body was not found until the spring thaw buried in a shallow hole. Dr. Pohl left Alaska for good, saying to her husband, “I won’t come back. I just don’t have the heart for anymore Alaska.”
Dr. Emil Pohl stayed on continuing his practice in Skagway and the surrounding regions. While fighting an epidemic of encephalitis, he contracted the disease and succumbed. Esther returned once more to Alaska but only to retrieve her dead husband’s body.
Herbert Merton Greene, the oldest of nine children, was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in 1878. It was there that a Mitchell County doctor, an army medic, inspired him to become a physician.
Greene moved out west and attended the University of Oregon Medical School, graduating in 1904. He completed post-graduate studies at the Vanderbilt Clinic in New York, and served internships at the Multnomah County Hospital, the Coffey Hospital and the North Pacific Sanitarium.
Greene's first year as a physician was spent making house calls by horse and buggy in LaCrosse, Washington. Located along the OR&N railway line, LaCrosse was a very small town of fewer than 500 inhabitants. He also worked as the proprietor's assistant in LaCrosse’s saloon and pharmacy.
After his experiences as a country doctor he decided that the rural life was not for him. He built a home on the basalt cliffs of the Willamette River and carried on a successful practice in Portland, Oregon until he passed in 1962.
Forbes Barclay was born in Scotland in 1812. He followed his father, John Barclay, into medicine. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and received his diploma from the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1838. He was appointed Surgeon to the Honorable Hudson’s Bay Company in 1839. Traveling around Cape Horn, he arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1840. Dr. Barclay was immediately put in charge of the hospital at the fort, which was described as an old shed outside the stockade. He also attended the settlers and the Indians in the region.
After 10 years, Barclay moved to the young settlement of Oregon City, a town established by the Hudson’s Bay Company. He had decided to “cast his lot with the Americans.” His practice ranged as far as “St. Helens on the Columbia, the Waldo Hills to the South, and Foster’s in the Cascade Mountains.” He traveled on horseback and by canoe navigated by an Indian guide. When he died at the age of 61 in 1873, the community mourned their loss. He was thought of as a “kindly, skillful and devoted physician among our midst.”
Developments in transportation and technology have made immeasurable improvements to rural medical care in the Pacific Northwest, but rural practice today still has similarities to that of the 19th century. As the OPB production of The Oregon Story: Country Doctors, Rural Medicine explains, “Like their predecessors, today's country doctors do things a little differently, but they also defy the stereotypes. They are some of the finest health care providers in the state and still tend to practice a sort of whole-person care rarely seen in urban medicine. Most studied medicine in a big city — probably even grew up in one — and have chosen a rural practice because they appreciate the lifestyle and community. In many cases, the doc might not be an actual "doctor," but a skilled professional with different credentials. And although most patients rely on insurance to cover health care costs, a rural doctor might still be persuaded to accept a payment of a cord of firewood or a side of beef.”
Dr. H. M. Greene (R) – LaCrosse, WA: saloon and pharmacy