2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
Link to Web site for Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town z

about Dr. bethenia:

For more details of Bethenia Owens-Adair's life, check out the Oregon Historical Society's History Project page on her; it features links to other OHS articles that help place her story in context.. Also, Jean M. Ward has published an excellent short article on Dr. Bethenia in the Oregon Encyclopedia -- a peer-reviewed historical project from Portland State University.

About "eugenic" sterilization in Oregon:

Reforming the Sexual Menace: Early 1900s Eugenic Sterilization in Oregon is a research paper that won a scholarship for author Jenette Eccleston from the Undergraduate Library Research Award Scholarship at the University of Oregon.

In early December 2003, Gov. John Kitzhaber formally apologized for the practice of eugenic sterilization so many years before, and declared Dec. 10 to be Human Rights Day in the state.

You might also enjoy ...

The story of One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst, another famous Oregonian who had to overcome Victorian-era gender discrimination, and chose a completely different — but no less successful — way to do it.

z

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...

z

Far-out guru "enlightens" Central Oregon.

What happens when a colony of acolytes of an East Indian guru move in, then try to take over Wasco County? Check out the four-part story of the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram ...

z

this oregon youth went on to save half a billion lives...guess who?

A local Willamette Valley teen-ager named Bert Hoover, an orphan sent from Iowa to live with his uncle, went on to save millions of lives and become a singularly ill-starred U.S. president.

z

oregon's most spectacular shipwreck ever.

The steam schooner J. Marhoffer was almost brand-new when, burning fiercely from stem to stern, it piled onto the rocks near Depoe Bay. It's the remains of this fiery shipwreck that gave Boiler Bay its name ...

z

the gallant rescue of portland's floating brothel.

Maritime madam Nancy Boggs kept her bordello on a barge floating in the river, until a police raid cut it loose. But the captain and crew of a sternwheeler came to save the day. Here's the story.

z

take off to the province of oregon, eh?

Few people know how close Oregon came to officially becoming a British possession under the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Only the presence of a handful of scattered, starving survivors from Astor's fur enterprise prevented it. Here's how.

z

timberline lodge could have been a glass skyscraper

Calling the plan a "profit-making eyesore," a Forest Service manager nixed 1920s plan for a modern steel-and-glass structure with an aerial tramway. You can read about it right here.

z

pixieland: an edgy, vanished amusement park

Built in the late 1960s as a "fairy-tale history of Oregon," the amusement park lasted just a few years before slipping into receivership. Today, all that's left of this odd and uniquely Oregonian story is a dilapidated guardshack.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

West Coast's first female doctor lived in Oregon

After Bethenia Owens divorced the frontier slacker she'd married at age 14, she went on to become one of Portland's most influential and respected professionals.

The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on the Fourth of July, 1915, in Harney City.
Bethenia Owens-Adair, as depicted in a portrait published in one
of Joseph Gaston's history books in the 1910s.

Maybe it’s for the best that Legrand Hill turned out to be such a lousy husband. Had he not beaten his wife and whipped their baby, George, Bethenia Hill would likely not have dumped him and gone on to become the West Coast’s first female physician — and the women’s suffrage movement would have lost one of its brightest stars.

Bethenia’s decision to leave Legrand was the more remarkable because she was just 18 when she made it, after four years of marriage. Also, this was 1858, and divorce was simply not contemplated. When she left, the neighbors were scandalized.

You may be a lazy person if ...

Not that they were likely very surprised. Legrand was, by all accounts, astonishingly lazy, and the only thing he showed a real talent for was hunting. After he lost their farm to foreclosure, her parents gave them some land and built the shell of a cabin on it for Legrand to finish out with things like a floor and a chimney and cooking area. It remained in that condition for years, and Bethenia had to do all the cooking and domestic chores outdoors.

Bethenia's deal-breaker

But she put up with it, and possibly with some physical abuse as well — until the day he “whipped my baby (who was around 24 months old at the time) unmercifully, and struck and choked me.” Then she was gone, and so was little George. Within a year or two she was divorced, with full custody and her maiden name back.

Back to school

Suddenly at loose ends, Mrs. Bethenia Owens started leaving George with her mother, where the little tyke played with his young aunts and uncles, and going to school. A few years later, she was actually teaching a class of 16 students — two of whom were more advanced than she (“I took their books home with me, and with the help of my brother-in-law, I managed to prepare the lessons beforehand, and they never suspected my incompetence,” she wrote later).

Up from nothing, one piecework job at a time

But teaching and the grueling schedule of piecework jobs — chiefly laundry and sewing — were a means to an end for Bethenia. By working hard and being very thrifty, she saved up enough money to launch a dressmaking and millinery business in Roseburg. This business became very successful, and generated enough money for her to send George to the University of California-Berkeley when he was just 14.

Bethenia discovers a taste for medicine

Once he was off to college, so was she. One of the skills she’d picked up in her life was medical — nursing was, in that age, grueling and unappreciated work, easy to get and hard to do, precisely the kind of work a driven person like Bethenia would take to fill an unexpected gap in her schedule of piecework jobs. Along the way, she discovered she liked medicine.

So in 1870, she handed the Roseburg business off to a younger sister and headed east, to a medical school in Philadelphia, one which taught “eclectic” medicine. She returned a year or so later (medical school, in the 1870s, was somewhat less lengthy than it is today, although not necessarily less arduous) and opened a medical practice.

Although 1870s medicine was a bit of a Wild-West kind of thing, eclectic medicine was not the mainstream, and its favor was already fading. When young George graduated from Berkeley, she did not consider an eclectic college for him; she sent him off to Willamette University, and two years later he was an M.D.

Forging a family tradition

Then she herself went out to get a “real” degree. After being turned away from several of the medical-college “boys’ clubs,” she found a place at the University of Michigan, and in 1880, after two years of study, she got it.

Introducing Dr. Bethenia Owens, M.D.

Dr. Bethenia Owens, M.D., was ready to take the place she’d earned in the society she had, in a very real sense, conquered. She became one of Portland’s most well-known citizens, a good friend of Abigail Scott Dunaway and a powerful force for women’s suffrage.

Married again

She went on to marry Colonel John Adair in 1884, and changed her name to Owens-Adair. He seems to have been a problem for her; he spent her money as fast as she earned it on ill-considered and dreamy schemes.

She retired from her practice in 1905 and, after moving to Warrenton, died in 1926 at age 86.

The dark side: Eugenics and forced sterilization

A modern person will probably find just one major negative thing in Bethenia’s story. Like many others of her era, she also was a believer in the “science” of eugenics. She became a powerful voice for forced sterilization, and her advocacy bore fruit in 1925, when the state adopted a statute establishing a eugenics board. In the 60 years after that, some 2,600-odd criminals and people deemed “feeble-minded” or insane had their reproductive organs stripped out, an episode for which then-Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a formal apology in 2002.

(Sources: Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1990; Johnson, Dorothy M. Some Went West. Lincoln, Neb: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997; Oregon Historical Society Website; Kitzhaber, John. “Proclamation of Human Rights Day,” Oregon State Archives, Dec. 2, 2002)

Editor's note: The proper spelling of Dr. Bethenia's name

I have been utterly foiled in my attempts to learn how to spell Dr. Bethenia's last name. Many sources list her as Bethenia Owen or Bethenia Owen-Adair; many more go with "Owens" and "Owens-Adair." I finally settled on the latter after finding a photograph of her tombstone (by Phoebe Friedman) in Ralph Friedman's book. Knowing from long experience how particular bereaved family members are about having names spelled right, I can't imagine her son and family would have tolerated a misspelling there. However, I have left the "Owen" version of the name in the file name of this Web page for the convenience of searchers using that variant to Google for info.