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When Mollie stepped off the train in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1890, she knew she had to start a new life. She'd left her husband and his medical practice behind in Iowa, and with only a few hundred dollars in her pocket and a great deal of pride, she set out to find a new position as a physician. She was offered a job as a doctor to the miners in Bannack, Montana, and thus began her epic adventures as a pioneer doctor, a suffragette, and a crusader for public health reform in ...
When Mollie stepped off the train in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1890, she knew she had to start a new life. She'd left her husband and his medical practice behind in Iowa, and with only a few hundred dollars in her pocket and a great deal of pride, she set out to find a new position as a physician. She was offered a job as a doctor to the miners in Bannack, Montana, and thus began her epic adventures as a pioneer doctor, a suffragette, and a crusader for public health reform in the Rocky Mountain West.
Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman's Work is the true story of Dr. Mary (Mollie) Babcock Atwater, a medicine woman who found freedom and opportunity in the wide-open spaces of America's frontier west. This remarkable tale has been creatively retold here by her granddaughter, award-winning author Mari Grana. Blending information from historical records as well as interviews with family and friends, the author has reconstructed Mollie's steps into a dramatic narrative that brings to life the doctor's struggles, her accomplishments, and the times in which she lived.
Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this is not just the biography of a fascinating woman. It is also the story of an era when daring women ventured forth and changed history for the rest of us.
The mare's hooves made deep gouges in the snowcrust on the wagon road that wound uphill, northwest from the town of Marysville. The cold of the winter of 1893 was exceptional, even for Montana. The rider, a young woman, was wrapped in a fur-lined coat, her face almost hidden in the knit scarf that wound several times around her head and throat; her hands holding the reins were buried in heavy wool mittens. She rode side-saddle, her long skirt draped over her legs along one side of the mare. The saddlebags that jostled against the mare's rump comprised her "office;" they carried the tools of her trade: stethoscope, syringes and surgical instruments, several vials of vulneraries, antiseptics. Willy, the woman's dog, followed through the snow, a few steps behind.
Doctor Mary Babcock Moore, known to her Marysville friends and patients as "Dr. Mollie," had received a message late that afternoon from the Anderson farm in the Little Prickly Pear. Jacob Anderson had sent one of his boys into town to find her. He caught her still at her office upstairs from the Mountaineer.
"You'd better hurry, Doctor," Jake's note said. "I was up at Slotski's this afternoon to see them, and little Jenny was in bed awful sick. She has rash all over. You can stay with us tonight. I'll have Anna make up the room for you."
Mollie had been afraid the message would be about Jenny. She had seen the little girl with her mother just last week buying groceries at the Golden Leaf Store. Almost everyone that winter had the mumps, not just the children, but the adults as well, and Jenny had looked slightly feverish. To Mollie's observant eyes, however, the eight-year-old didn't have the puffy throat and cheeks of the mumps. When she took off her coat, the doctor noted with concern the faint rash along the child's arm.
"I'd like you to bring Jenny over to my office," Mollie had said to Sophronia Slotski, Jenny's mother. "I'd like to take a closer look at that arm."
"Oh no," Sophronia had replied quickly, "Jenny's all right. She fell on the ice and scraped her arm. It's nothing."
"It might be something worse," the doctor said. "I'd really like to have a look." She had heard there were several cases of scarlet fever in Helena; she was worried it might be spreading to Marysville.
"No, no. It's nothing." Sophronia had grabbed her groceries in one hand and her daughter's arm in the other and hurried out of the store to the buckboard waiting down the street in front of the Mountaineer office. Mollie watched Sophronia hand the groceries up to her husband, Marek, then push Jenny up into the wagon and climb in after her. The wagon headed up Main and turned right onto the road that would lead to the Big Ox cut-off down to the Little Prickly Pear. Mollie was concerned: she and Jenny were good friends, and it was unusual that the girl hadn't said anything to her. Jenny had avoided her, staring at the floor.
The mare climbed up into the spruce forest above the town. As they entered the trees, the weak light of the winter late afternoon dimmed almost to darkness. Contemplating what lay ahead that evening, Mollie grew angry. People like the Slotskis were so poor they were afraid they couldn't pay her bills, and yet they were too proud to owe her. They would wait until the last minute to call for her. Often they waited beyond the last minute, and there was little Mollie could do for them but sit by the bed and wait too—wait for the fever to break, or wait for it all to be over. And now this call. If she was right, Jenny probably had a raging case. And if she did, she may have given it to everyone in the family, at least to her two younger brothers.
Mollie had helped Sophronia at the birth of her third little boy. The birth was agonizing; the baby died. It was a breach, and there was nothing she could do. Jenny had refused to leave the cabin, and had cried all through the birthing, covering her ears when she heard her mother's screams. When it was over, Mollie had held her and reassured her that her mother would be fine. The girl calmed down, and in a few minutes was running outside to play with her brothers. When the doctor had made Sophronia as comfortable as possible, she walked outside with Marek and spoke frankly with him:
"You have to be very careful," she had told Marek sternly. "I don't think Sophronia can survive another pregnancy. When she is feeling better, bring her round to my office. I need to talk to her."
Marek's face had turned red at being admonished about sex by a woman. His embarrassment was endearing. Often, when she had other calls out in the Little Prickly Pear, she would stop by the cabin to see how the family was getting on. Jenny would always run out and greet her. Sometimes Mollie would see the child going into the little Catholic church on Sunday mornings when her parents drove her and her two younger brothers into town to attend Sunday school. The Slotskis made sure the children were there every week.
Mollie pulled the mare off the road at the trail that led into the Anderson's cleared meadow. There was a light in the farmhouse window. Jake must have been watching for her; he came out and waved.
She didn't dismount. "I'll get up there right now, Jake," she called out. "I'll be back later tonight."
"Sure, Doc," Jacob called back. "Anna has your room ready."
Mollie kicked at the mare's side, and horse and rider started up the steep trail into the woods above the farm. The hard snow crunched under the mare's hooves. Fortunately the night was clear, and a half moon still low on the horizon gave enough light through the trees for her to make out the trail.
Marek had not brought Sophronia to the office last spring after the baby's death. Mollie knew that Marek had been laid off some months ago from the Drumlummon, along with several other miners. The rich vein that had made that smart Irish fox, Tom Cruse, a millionaire and paid thousands to the English syndicate Tom had sold to, was running out. For a while Marek and the other Drumlummon miners had drawn good pay from the company, enough for him to buy the small spread in the Little Prickly Pear and to send back to Nebraska for Sophronia and the children to join him. But that was two years ago. This year, with the drop in metal prices by half and the drought on the plains, the economic situation was bad all over Montana. Now Marek was trying to survive by farming his piece of land.
After a half hour of climbing, the trail crossed a ridge and dropped down into a narrow valley. In the moonlit distance Mollie could see smoke rising from a small log cabin set at the edge of a cleared field, now snow-covered. The faint light of a kerosene lamp came through a window.
As the doctor approached, the heavy cabin door opened and Marek came out to meet her. Her instinct was to vent her anger at him, but the look on his face stopped her.
"It's real bad, Doctor Mollie," he said, his voice cracking. "Her throat hurts so much she can't eat anything, hasn't for almost two days. She just takes a sip of water now and then."
Mollie dismounted and untied her saddlebags from the mare's back. Marek took the reins and led the horse off to the corral. The doctor entered the cabin; Willy ran in behind her.
The cabin consisted of two small rooms; the first, into which she entered, was the larger, and was warm from the wood stove that stood well out into the room from the log wall. Willy went straight to the stove and curled himself in front of it. Next to the stove was a metal oil drum full of wood, and beyond that two buckets of water stood on the plank floor. A kettle on the stove sent a mist of steam into the room. Across from the stove stood a rough table with stools shoved under it, the top cluttered with dirty metal plates and utensils. A kerosene lamp burned on the table in front of the only window in the room. On the wall in the corner opposite the door, a candle burned on a little shelf in front of a picture of the Virgin. Two small boys were sitting on a bunk. Their faces were smeared, and Mollie could see they had been crying.
At the back of the room was a doorway, hung with a heavy blanket that was pulled to one side to let the heat through. Mollie went straight to this doorway and entered the small bedroom. The smell made her gasp—the stench of sickness, of fever sweat and unwashed skin, of fetid breath expelled from sick lungs and throat. Along the wall, Jenny lay on a mattress under a pile of blankets. A kerosene lamp on a low table beside the mattress gave off a dim light. Sophronia sat on a stool next to the makeshift bed. She rose quietly as the doctor came in and offered her the stool.
Mollie set her saddlebags on the floor and took off her mittens and her scarf and coat. Then she sat down by the feverish child and pulled back the covers from her chest; the skin was blotched with rash.
"Hello, Jenny," she spoke gently to the child, putting her hand to test the hot forehead. "I'll bet you feel pretty hot right now, don't you?"
Jenny slowly turned her head in the direction of the voice. "My throat hurts," she croaked in a whisper. "And my ears. And I itch all over."
"I know, Honey, I have something here to make that feel better. But first I want you to open your mouth and let me look at your tongue." As she expected, the girl's tongue was chalk white and the roof of her mouth had bright red spots on it. She took hold of Jenny's wrist and counted: the pulse was rapid, too rapid.
Mollie had no doubts about what she was seeing. Her immediate concern, however, was what other infection the child might have. She took the kerosene lamp and held it as close as she safely could next to each of Jenny's ears. A pus-like fluid hovered at the edge of the ear opening. If Jenny got through the fever, Mollie knew she would likely have trouble with her ears.
Sophronia came through the doorway with a chipped enamel basin and a sheet draped over her arm.
"This sheet is all I have clean. I haven't had time to do the wash since Jenny took sick." Sophronia looked away from Mollie, embarrassed. "And the vinegar is all used up; I forgot to put it on the list when we were in town last week."
"That's all right. Just rip the sheet in half and then rip one half into small pieces. And don't let them touch the floor," Mollie ordered her.
As Sophronia ripped the sheet, Mollie pulled the covers completely off Jenny's hot body. She took the half piece of sheet from Sophronia and folded it lengthwise on the side of the mattress. Gently, she rolled Jenny away from her, pushed the clean half sheet under the girl's body, then rolled her forward and pulled it to the other side of the mattress. Then she dug into her saddlebag and brought out a small flask of concentrated antiseptic soap and poured several drops into the basin of warm water.
"You'll feel better now," she said softly to Jenny, as she dipped a piece of torn sheet into the basin and began to clean the sweaty little body. When she finished the bath, she brought out a tin of salve from the saddle bag and gently rubbed it on Jenny's legs and arms and chest. Then she turned to Sophronia:
"Do you have a clean petticoat or a nightgown we can put over her?" Sophronia went to a trunk in the corner of the room and pulled out a long white petticoat. Mollie took it and laid it on top of Jenny. It covered the small girl like a sheet.
"She won't need any more cover than this for a while. Let's let her rest now. We'll go in the other room. I need to talk to you."
Mollie turned to Marek and Sophronia: "It's scarlet fever, and it's very contagious, especially to children. So far, the boys seem to be all right. I've made Jenny as comfortable as I can for now. The salve I put on her will relieve her itching. All we can do now is wait and see if the fever will break."
A half hour later, Mollie rode into the Anderson's yard.
"We'll just have to wait and see," she said, when Jake opened the door to her knock. As Jake stabled the mare for the night, Mollie went into the farm house and sank down exhausted on a bench in front of the fire, Willy at her feet.
"My God, why do they wait so long?" she said, holding her head in her hands. Anna came in from the kitchen with a cup of hot tea.
Jenny's fever broke early the next morning. When the doctor got to the cabin, the little girl was sitting up on her mattress. Her face was pale, but her thin body showed the ravages the fever had left on her. She smiled when Mollie came into the room.
"I'm hungry," she said.
"Would you like some broth, Honey?" Mollie asked. Jenny looked at her quizzically. She didn't seem to hear what the doctor said.
Jenny never again heard anyone speak. The antibiotic that possibly could have saved her hearing from the secondary infection—a not uncommon result of scarlet fever in those days—was still half a century away from discovery.
(1) Preface (2) An Impossible Marriage (3) A Job in a Mining Camp (4) The Ride to Bannack (5) The New Doc is a Woman? (6) A Boy with a Broken Leg (7) A Deadly Pregnancy (8) Anthony Comstock, Post Office Prude (9) Unwelcome Back Home (10) Dr. Mary B. Moore Has Arrived (11) The Marysville Strangler (12) A Visit to a Brothel (13) A Startling Proposal (14) Just Another Little Whore (15) The Marysville Suffrage Society (16) A Surprising Diagnosis (17) The Fight for a Suffrage Amendment (18) A Close Win (19) A Monster is Killing the People (20) The Nineteenth Amendment (21) A Last Move (22) Epilogue (23) The State of Medicine in Dr. Atwater's Times (24) Bibliography
Posted May 4, 2014
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