Category: Biography

Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair

The first woman doctor in Oregon.

Dr. Owens-Adair was petite bundle of fire and energy, a woman of accomplishment in a time when women were actively discouraged from extending their education and abilities beyond that necessary to keep a harmonious home. She refused to let family disapproval, the disapprobation of friends and the social mores of her time stand in her way in her drive to excel as a pioneer physician. She championed women’s rights and suffrage, temperance and sterilization of the criminally insane and mentally retarded.

Bethenia Owens was born February 7, 1840 in Missouri, the second of nine children. Three years later, her family emigrated to Oregon. At age 14, Bethenia met and married her first husband, Legrand Hill, a marriage that did not last due to Hill’s preference for hunting and fishing to the hard work of making a pioneer farm and home. Four years later, Bethenia returned to her family with their son George, born in 1856. She was an 18-year single mother of a toddler, with a minimal education. The next year she sued for divorce and the restoration of her maiden name, and began the lifelong education that culminated in her becoming a physician.

While attending school, Miss Owens supported herself and growing son George by taking any work that paid: washing, shirt-making, berry-picking and teaching. To earn sufficient money to send her son to medical school, she set herself up as a milliner, at which she enjoyed great success. In 1870 she sent her son to UC Berkeley. It was then she decided to study nursing, so that she could be of help to her son; she already had developed practical experience by assisting ill neighbors.

Owens began her studies at the Eclectic School of Medicine in Philadelphia in 1870. Although she encountered much prejudice and resistance, she applied herself to her studies. When she returned to Portland, Oregon, she set up shop providing therapeutic electrical and medicated baths, a new treatment at the time. Son George entered the medical department of Willamette University, graduating two years later.

Although successful as an Eclectic Doctor, Dr. Owens pined for more knowledge. She matriculated at the University of Michigan. In 1880 her diligence was rewarded with a full medical degree. Dr. Owens went on to Chicago to study; later, in the company of two other women physicians and her son, now Dr. Hill, Dr. Owens toured Europe, attending lectures and visiting hospitals.

Dr. Owens settled in Clatsop County, Oregon where she eventually met Colonel John Adair, an old family friend. They were married in 1884. She provided medical services to patients from Astoria to Seaside, often traveling by boat, as there were few roads in the area. The Adairs later moved to North Yakima, Washington. Not content to rest on her laurels, Dr. Owens-Adair returned to Chicago for a post-graduate degree in 1899, bringing her medical knowledge up to date.

Unfortunately, although her marriage to Col. Adair was a happy one, it did not last. Unable to fulfill all her professional, social and household duties, Dr. Owens-Adair suggested they part and Col. Adair take their adopted son John to their farm. Dr. Owens-Adair retired her medical practice in 1905. She continued her work as a social and political activist. She died in 1926, just three days after attending the opening of the Astor column in Astoria.

Dr. Owens-Adair spent a good portion of her professional career in Clatsop County, across the river from my family’s farm. She would come across the Lewis & Clark River to attend monthly grange meetings, staying the night with my great-grandparents. She was a welcome and honored visitor and my great-grandparents would prepare a large dinner and cake for dessert. Dr. Adair (as my family called her), insisted on cutting the cake herself. She would cut each piece, licking the knife between each cut, much to the family’s consternation.

Sources: Luchetti, Cathy and Olwell, Carol, Women of the West, Antelope Island Press, St. George, Utah, 1982
Lockley, Fred, With Her Own Wings, Smith, Helen Krebs, ed., Beattie and Company Printers, Portland Oregon, 1948
Personal recollection

© 2001-2006, originally published Jul 01, 2001