Mary Purvine, M.D.: “I don’t care for sliced tomatoes”

Mary Purvine, M.D.Mary 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."

Photo: Mary Purvine, M.D., 1899

Contributed by Karen Peterson, Assistant Professor, Archives, OHSU Historical Collections & Archives