Chris Enss

Books: History | Biography | Medicine

The Doctor Wore Petticoats: Women Physicians of the Old West (2006)

doctor-wore-petticoatsThe stories in this book are very interesting–it's a look at the women who were the pioneers of medicine in the old West.

The problem is that the writing is pretty terrible.

Each women is introduced with a somewhat fictionalized tale of what her life was like as a frontier doctor (or dentist), and those anecdotes were interesting, but then it's not necessarily clear when in time these things happened, and then you are jumped back in time to the birth and then childhood of the woman.

Furthermore, some of the stories jump around, and I'm never quite sure what happened when.

For example, the story of Nellie Elizabeth Pooler opens with a story of a miner coming to the office in the middle of the night.

"The doctor isn't here," she informed the man. "He's in Nevada looking for silver."

"You've got to help me," he insisted.

"I'm not a dentist," she told him. "I don't know how to remove a bad tooth."

Then were told was born in 1847. She became a licensed dentist in 1879, because she worked with her husband.

Allen proved to be a wonderful teacher, sharing his knowledge of dentistry with his wide and encouraging her to acquire a license of her own.

Her husband–the dentist who owned the practice–left to run a silver mine in 1865. That's 14 years before she became licensed. And then the author says, "Confident that Nellie could handle the practice alone with the training that he had given her, Allen turned his attention to mining."

So, which is it? She didn't know how to remove a bad tooth, or her husband was confident she could handle the practice alone?

Then there was Mariam Ellen Canaga Rowland.

She was born on June 29, 1873. She was first married in March 1897, that should be 23 years old. She graduated medical school in 1901, that should be 28 years old. She had her first daughter in 1902, which would have her 29, and then her first husband died. Second marriage in 1904, that should be age 31. The the story closes with this, "In 1935, Mary remarried and had a second child." No comment about the fact she gave birth at age 62?.

We're also given tidbits that are never followed up on. For instance:

Susan's parents divorced in 1875 and shortly thereafter, William left the area with his daughter and two-year-old son. Susan and her brother, John, were brokenhearted about leaving their mother. For reasons unknown to the Anderson children, William wanted no part of Mayra, and forbid his son and daughter from interacting with her as well.

And we never learn anything more. To me, the phrase "For reasons unknown to the Anderson children" means other people knew, and so I read on, curious as to what would cause a man to take such an action.

Nope. Nothing.

And this was dropped almost in passing about Patty Bartlett Sessions, who married in 1812 to David Sessions.

In keeping with the religion's Polygamist practice, Patty accepted a proposal of marraige from Joseph Smith. On March 9, 1842, the two exchanged vows.

Yes. That's right. THAT Joseph Smith.

So the stories themselves are interesting, but the book itself badly needed edited.

Published by TwoDot

Rating: 4/10