Single Mom and Doctoring Pioneer: Bethenia Owens-Adair

By Naomi Inman
Oregon’s Lipstick Revolution series

The first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States was Elizabeth Blackwell in 1849.  Not far behind Blackwell, and well ahead of her own time was a single, teenage mom, Bethenia Owens-Adair (1840-1926), who became one of the first women to practice medicine in Oregon.  She waltzed into the world of medicine alone and unafraid to pursue her passion. She was unhampered by her circumstances.

A child of the Oregon Trail, Bethenia’s family settled near Astoria.  By age 16 she was married and had a son named George.  She could have succumbed to what happened next, but instead she soared.  She had a husband who wouldn’t work and had a violent temper.  So she divorced him at 19 and set out to “make a living for herself.”

Bethenia excelled in her gift of grit and seemed to use every obstacle as a stepping stone.  She became a schoolteacher, and then a very successful milliner and business owner in Roseburg.  She was always self-taught.  By the age of 30, with her son raised, and a “fondness for nursing,” she set out to obtain a medical education.  This was so bad, so shocking, and so unorthodox for a woman to attend medical school that her family felt shame and disgrace at her decision.

Not one to give ear to the dictates of society, Bethenia earned not only one medical degree, she earned two.  She toured hospitals in Europe and even sent her son to medical school at Willamette University.  She championed Women’s Suffrage with Abigail Duniway. She set up private practice in Portland, and only a few men were willing to be her patients.  But my, oh my, did she ever make a splash by serving women as a physician, and blazing a trail for women with dreams.  That’s what I call a Lipstick Revolution.

She later married Col. John Adair and continued in her caring ways by adopting two children and becoming a country doctor near Astoria where “at no time did [she] ever refuse a call, day or night, rain or shine.”  Now, isn’t that just like a woman?

Note: In 1950 just 5.9% of Medical Students were women.  By 1982 it was 29%, and today nearly half of applicants and new students at U.S. medical schools are women. (Association of American Medical Colleges) *Source material in More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Oregon Women by Gayle Shirley (Globe Pequot Press, 1998).

Naomi Inman is a writing mom in Portland, Oregon.  If you can suggest a living or historical figure for the Lipstick Revolution, please send your welcome submissions to [email protected]

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