Book Review: ‘Pioneer Doctor’ by Mari Graña

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Ms. Graña’s grandmother, Dr. Mary Babcock Atwater, “Dr. Mollie” worked in the Montana mining camps most of her adult life. Every medical care giver, every politician, every woman voter, should read this true story of how far we’ve come in the past 135 years.

Originally a schoolteacher, Doctor Mollie assisted her physician husband in his Osage Iowa practice. With his encouragement, she entered medical school, graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of Chicago in the class of 1887. But her husband had a different idea of what women were qualified to do: she was his assistant, not his partner. He took charge of all her patients’ payments, and what their treatment should be.

The increasing bitterness in their disputes climaxed when Mollie’s mother-in-law deliberately kicked Mollie’s dog. Mollie moved in with friends nearby, and soon took a train westward, to set up her own practice in Salt Lake City. She found the general attitude toward women doctors was not any more favorable in Utah than in Iowa. But in a chance contact with a Montana mining executive seeking a doctor for his company’s mines, she met his wife who was ill and in her first pregnancy. She convinced them she would be the ideal solution for them both. She was soon on a train north to Montana Territory, where the small town of Bannack lay 25 miles west of the Dillon railroad station.

The new doc is a woman? Most miners were sceptical of this arrangement. Until the day she responded promptly to a knife fight in a saloon, where a man lay on a billiard table bleeding from his neck. Wasting no time, she stopped the bleeding and sutured the wound. “You men make him a stretcher — some planks or something — and carry him home gently. I’ll check on him in the morning.” She left the saloon.

Next afternoon the mine boss stopped by at her office. “You established yourself last night. The men all think it’s a miracle.” He grinned. ”I knew I hadn’t made a mistake when I hired you.”

The townspeople brought their problems to her; fractures, baby deliveries, poisonings, and much more. But the nation as a whole still had mixed feelings about women working outside the home. The American Medical Association didn’t accept women doctors as members. The U.S. Post Office allowed inspection and confiscation of any mail suspected of containing contraceptive devices or literature. Women had no voting rights.

Mollie knew her career would not grow much in a small, isolated mining camp. A year later, the mine boss moved onward to a bigger job supervising the company’s mines around Helena, Montana’s capital. He invited Mollie to become the entire company’s doctor, headquartered at Marysville. There she had contact with other doctors, with advocates for women’ suffrage (voting rights) and with educated men and women. She had finally divorced her first husband; later met and married Ben Atwater, an accountant in the Helena area They had one child, Dorothy (this book’s author’s mother), and Mollie gave up her demanding medical practice to be a mother.

Causes of epidemics were unknown in those days, let alone how to cure them. The biggest killer was tuberculosis, especially among miners, continually exposed to rock dust. Children were vulnerable to strep throat, diphtheria, measles, polio. Vaccines were still experimental; antibiotics did not exist.

Travelers along Interstate 90 nowadays will pass the small town of Galen (south of Deer Lodge); the site of Montana’s TB sanitarium. That’s one of the institutions Dr. Mollie helped create, and later administered.

During World War I, many doctors and nurses served with the army in France. When the influenza epidemic of 1918 exploded, the few doctors and nurses remaining in Montana were overwhelmed. Mollie volunteered to cover the town of Whitefish, population about 3,000; where 1,252 cases were reported, with 25 deaths. (Philadelphia PA was hardest hit, with more than 32,000 deaths reported.) That was the year the Montana state legislature finally gave women the right to vote, a major victory for Dr. Mollie and the women’s suffrage campaigners.

• • •

This book review is a different format from my usual attempts to“not spoil the ending.” The ending of this true story is the crowning event of Dr. Mollie Atwater’s career. Forty years after Mollie died, her granddaughter Mari Graña, now forty-four and an accomplished writer, drove to Helena and called a number she had found amid her grandmother’s things. Fanny Reynolds was her grandmother’s next door neighbor. “Almost with her first words she stopped me cold: ‘I’ve been waiting years for you. Sooner or later I knew you would come.” Mrs. Reynolds, then 84 years old, had many stories to tell Mari, who then added, in an epilogue to her book:

“My grandmother never died, because I am my grandmother. As far back as I can remember, whenever I brought home a good report card, my mother would smile and say, ‘I’m so proud of you — you’re just like your grandmother. ‘But then when I talked back to her or sneaked off to do something I knew I wasn’t supposed to, her face would flush with rage and she would shout, ‘I might have known you’d be just like your grandmother!’” As I [the reviewer] read the last pages, of the book, I realized that, along with a reading a remarkable medical and political career, I had learned a lot about how a doctor’s personality develops.

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