History of Women in Medicine in Clatsop County

Women in Medicine in Clatsop County

There are many stories connected to the history of medical care in Clatsop County. With that in mind, we’d like to share, in collaboration with the Clatsop County Historical Society, a few notable tales.

Women have always been an integral and visible part of Clatsop County health care. Whether it’s Dr. Bethenia Owens Adair who holds the claim of being the first female physician in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon who took charge when the Influenza Pandemic of 1918 threatened the area, the Astoria chapter of the Oregon Women’s Ambulance Corp. who served the Naval Hospital during World War II, or any of many others, all have interesting histories to share.

Nursing

In Clatsop County, we have a fairly rich history of nursing, due in large part to an ongoing tradition of nurse training programs. For 75 of the last 110 years, there has been some manner of nursing education in Astoria. Most recently, Clatsop Community College has graduated more than 550 students from its nursing program since it began in 1983. They have established an extended campus site in Tillamook and partnered with Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) in Portland, allowing their students to be co-enrolled.

Nurses in surgery in early Clatsop County. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Nurses in surgery in early Clatsop County. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

The first hospital in Astoria was a Marine Hospital established by the federal government to care for US Merchant Marines and other qualified seamen. When that hospital relocated to Portland in the mid-1870s, Clatsop County became hospital-less. St. Mary’s Hospital, established in 1880 by the Sisters of Charity of Providence, filled the void. The original building had been the Arrigoni Hotel on 15th and Duane Street in Astoria and was acquired by the sisters for $5,500.

The hospital’s initial 25 beds quickly proved inadequate to serve the growing population. In 1895, an annex housing 40 additional beds was added to the structure. Ten years later, a completely new structure was built adjacent to the existing hospital, greatly expanding its capacity and allowing it to offer a nursing school beginning in 1909.

One Sister Andrew founded St. Mary’s School, having previously established a nurses’ training school at St. Vincent’s Hospital in northwest Portland. While she and her fellow sisters managed the students and oversaw the regular coursework, the lessons were supplemented by a series of lectures offered by area doctors. The topics covered ranged from hygiene and dietetics to obstetrics and surgery, with a special course dedicated to the treatment of tubercular patients. (Tuberculosis comes up frequently in local medical history.)

St. Mary's School of Nursing in Astoria circa 1912. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Astoria circa 1912. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Students at St. Mary’s studied for two-and-a-half years, residing within the hospital during their tenure. All students wore the same white uniform that had to be cleaned and pressed at the start of each shift. Each was also required to have a blue wool cape with scarlet lining for outings and other events. The workload for the students consisted of 12-hour days, six days a week. Because St. Mary’s didn’t employ interns, the students spent the last six months to a year of their studies engaged in surgeries and other complex medical procedures. Participating in surgeries included keeping a close count on the sponges and preparing for re-use a number of items we now consider disposable — including needles, bandages and rubber gloves.

St. Mary’s graduated its last class of nurses in 1948. At that time, nursing education was becoming standardized under the State Board of Health, and the programs were being moved into state colleges and teaching hospitals. In 1970, St. Mary’s itself closed. For a time, the brick structure built in 1931 continued as one of two locations of Columbia Memorial Hospital. In 1979, the Clatsop County Housing Authority acquired the building, converted it into low-income apartments, and renamed it the Owens-Adair after Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair, one of the first female physicians in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair

As part of the Great Migration of 1843, Bethenia Owens moved from Missouri to the Oregon Territory at age three with her family. Her family settled on Clatsop Plains until she was 13, when the family moved to Southern Oregon, near Roseburg. At age 14, she was married, and by 19, she was divorced with a young son.

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Determined to take care of herself and her son, she pursued every opportunity that presented itself to her. She found ways to pursue education, eventually becoming a schoolteacher. Another opportunity arose for her to open a millinery or hat-making shop in Roseburg. She quit teaching and did well enough as a milliner to send her son to medical school in 1870, set him up with a drugstore when he was done and have money left over to send herself to medical school.

Owens-Adair attended the Eclectic School of Medicine in Philadelphia, returning to the Northwest to practice in Portland, where she offered electrical and medicated baths. The use of electricity as a form of medical care was quite common at this point, but after about two years of this, Owens-Adair decided to pursue what she described as “a full medical course in the old school.” She attended the University of Michigan Medical School, graduating in two years with a medical degree. She completed a six-month residency in Chicago and spent another six months visiting elite hospitals throughout Europe. Afterward, she returned to Portland and began a practice as “a full-fledged University physician of the old school,” not a “bath doctor.”

Although there were other women in the Northwest who held the title “Doctor,” Owens-Adair is considered the first female physician because she completed a traditional medical degree from a respected institution. Owens-Adair had a successful practice in Portland and when she married Col. John Adair, she ran a rural practice south of Astoria for 11 years. During that time, she was called upon at all hours of the day and dragged to remote locations throughout the Clatsop Plains and Young’s River regions, taking a toll on her health. To escape the wet weather, she set up a practice in Yakima, Washington, retiring in 1905, but not ending her professional life.

In 1907, Dr. Owens-Adair put forth multiple bills before the Oregon State Legislature calling for the forced sterilization of habitual criminals and people identified as mentally unstable. Another bill required physical and mental examinations of both partners before the issuing of a marriage license. Those bills were eventually defeated, but she continued undeterred.

Dr. Clara Young Waffle

Clara Young, daughter of wealthy cannery owner Benjamin Young, graduated from the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland in 1907. She had entered medical school as a widow at age 29. Prior to entering, she was an exemplar of upper-class Victorian womanhood, being well-trained in the arts and well-traveled.

Dr. Clara Young Waffle. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Dr. Clara Young Waffle. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Young was born in San Francisco in 1874, but her family moved to Astoria when she was an infant. Her father found great success owning and operating a cannery and was able to afford the requisite luxuries for his many children. Young-Waffle was educated at Miss Warren’s School for Young Ladies in Astoria and spent two years each in Sweden and Germany studying music.

Following her graduation from the University of Oregon, Dr. Young returned to Astoria and married Dr. Eldred Waffle. The two traveled to Europe to pursue post-graduate medical training. For Clara, this may have assisted her in better learning the field of obstetrics. When the Waffles returned to Astoria, they set up a joint practice in which much of her work focused on pregnancy and childbirth.

Dr. Clara Waffle continued practicing medicine well into her 60s. Besides overseeing the delivery of countless Astoria youth, she also served as the City Health Officer and taught at St. Mary’s School of Nursing for a number of years.

Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon

Nellie Smith Vernon was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1867 and purportedly always wanted to be a doctor. When she was in her early 30s, she attended the University of Oregon Medical School a few years ahead of Clara Young and graduated in 1901. She began practicing medicine in Astoria in 1903. Four years later, she was appointed the Health Officer for the City of Astoria. When the Spanish Flu hit the region in 1918, she assumed the temporary position of Health Officer for all of Clatsop County. In this role, Dr. Vernon was responsible for enforcing any state and federal regulations that had been put into place to stop the spread of the disease.

Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

The influenza pandemic — commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu — killed more than 20 million people worldwide in the fall and winter of 1918 and 1919. It found its way to Clatsop County via soldiers returning from World War I. In late September 1918, a number of infected soldiers arrived at Fort Stevens near Warrenton. By October 2, 120 cases of the flu were reported there. Soldiers who appeared healthy weren’t confined to the fort and instead continued with regular duties that brought them into contact with civilians.

Though Fort Stevens was quarantined by October 9, the flu had already spread. On October 12, both Astoria and Seaside were shut down in an effort to contain the flu. An array of establishments, from dance halls and pool rooms to churches and schools, were ordered closed until further notice. Dr. Vernon also ordered all interiors of schools and their furnishings be disinfected.

At its height, there were 1500 cases of flu in Astoria, with uncounted others within the county. Within a month, there were 111 deaths in Astoria and 33 at Fort Stevens. Although there was another short outbreak of the flu in January 1919, the local paper credited Dr. Vernon’s decisive actions during this crisis with keeping the death count lower than it might have been.

Military Medical History

The area’s proximity to military bases, as well as the naval hospital that was in operation during World War II and the Korean War, brought about another way in which locals entered the medical field.

Gray Ladies

The Gray Ladies (circa WWII). Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

The Gray Ladies (circa WWII). Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

The Gray Ladies, so named because of their uniforms’ color, were approximately 30 local women who served at the Naval Hospital during World War II. They were volunteers for the Red Cross and underwent intensive training from Red Cross nurses. Once trained, they were expected to dedicate 20 hours a week to aiding and improving the moods of recovering soldiers. This involved simple things like reading to the soldiers, writing letters for them, offering bedside craft classes in ceramics or leather tooling, and organizing weekly summer picnics. The Gray Ladies also covered the receptionist’s desk, presumably helping the hospital run more smoothly.

Oregon Women’s Ambulance Corps

During World War II, the Astoria platoon of the Oregon Women’s Ambulance Corps (OWAC) worked at the Naval Hospital.

Six women ambulance drivers in front of their Oregon Women's Ambulance Corps Ambulance. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Six women ambulance drivers in front of their Oregon Women’s Ambulance Corps Ambulance. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

This was a civilian organization with a quasi-military structure. Local chapters of OWAC were formed around 12 or more qualifying individuals. The qualifications included being a woman over 18 who was also a US citizen, presenting a reasonable personal appearance and good moral character, and possessing a driver’s license. Members underwent vigorous training and regularly participated in military-style drills.

All Corps members learned short-wave radio, first aid and automobile mechanics and had to complete a training program offered by the fire department. Members might also learn target practice, telephone installation, ground aviation, map reading and perform gas-mask drills, among other activities. The idea was that they were ready to respond to whatever crisis might emerge.

Beverly Jean Leach

Beverly Jean Leach. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Beverly Jean Leach. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Beverly Jean Leach joined the women’s branch of the Navy during World War II and was trained as a nurse. She was one of many nurses stationed at the Naval Hospital here in Astoria during the Korean War. Between the two wars and after, she worked as a civilian nurse. Upon being discharged after the Korean War, a superior officer wrote a letter to her father describing Beverly as “doing a man’s job in a world fraught with danger.”

Maternity Care

The development of obstetrics and gynecology in Clatsop County closely mirrored national trends, if a few years behind.

In the early 1800s, childbirth was overwhelmingly performed by midwives or female family members who occasionally trained with a more experienced midwife or had attended other births. In the 1860s, midwifery was increasingly professionalized, with midwives acquiring some level of academic training. Between 1915 and 1921, 12 women were registered in Clatsop County to act as midwives.

Mothers and their children at CMH circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Mothers and their children at CMH circa 1930. Photo courtesy of the Clatsop County Historical Society.

At the same time, in the early 20th century, prenatal care became a real concern throughout the US. When the Clatsop County Health Association was formed in 1922, prenatal assistance for expectant mothers was among its primary missions.

Following national developments in the late 1930s, ads for CMH began emphasizing the obstetrical department or maternity ward. As with most hospitals at the time, both St. Mary’s and CMH maintained a nursery that housed infants separately from the rooms in which new mothers recuperated. This served the dual trend of promoting in-hospital births to women as a sort of vacation from the burdens of their home lives, while placing increased authority over the birthing process onto trained medical staff.   

In 1976, following a trend away from separating parent and child, CMH adopted Family-Centered Maternity Care, allowing infants to “room-in,” or remain in the room with their mother while she was awake. Both mothers and medical staff described this arrangement as advantageous, as it allowed the new mothers to bond with and care for their newborns while in the hospital. New fathers were also invited to visit, provided they check in with the nurse, wash up and wear a hospital gown.