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The First Female Doctor in WY Wasn’t Well Received…by Women

Lilian Heath. Such a demure name.

She was anything but.

In the 1880s, Lilian’s pa got her a job assisting Dr. Thomas Maghee, the physician

Lilian Heath

Lilian Heath

in the wide-open railroad town of Rawlins, WY. A petite little thing still in high school, Lilian was pretty fearless, but not stupid. She dressed like a man and carried a .32 when she went on calls late at night. She and the doc did everything from delivering babies to reconstruct a man’s face after his failed suicide attempt.

The nursing position set Lilian’s destiny. She graduated high school, and, with her father’s blessing and Dr. Maghee’s recommendation, headed off to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa. She was one of only three women in the class. After completing her training, she returned to Rawlins to practice medicine and was well-received … by the menfolk. The women in town were another story. Catty, and jealous, they whispered behind her back, accused her of being a know-it-all, a few even refused to pay Lilian for services rendered. Lilian’s mother Calista wasn’t thrilled with the vocation either, believing her daughter had over-stepped her bounds as a woman.

Maybe, but if a man lay dying of a gunshot wound 30 or 40 miles away, Lilian put on her big girl breeches and made the ride.

Clearly, being a trained female physician was a bad thing, because you could, you know, save lives.

Lilian met her husband, Louis Nelson, in Rawlins and they were married in 1898. He was a painter and a decorator. Go figure. Lilian practiced medicine for fifteen years and then quietly retired, though she kept her medical license current much, much longer than that.

Unfortunately, you can’t read any article about Lilian that doesn’t mention her “connection” to an outlaw. In 1881, while Lilian was still in high school and a candy-striper, for all intents, Big Nose George Parrot was lynched for murdering a deputy. When no one claimed the body, Doctor Maghee stepped up. Curious to see if the bandit’s brain was somehow deformed, he dissected the man’s head, in the name of science. Lilian assisted with the autopsy and was given Big Nose George’s skull cap as a souvenir. She kept it for years, using it for everything from a doorstop to a pipe holder.

Reporters loved to mention that story as if it was her greatest achievement.

My guess is, there were a few members of the press she would have liked to use as doorstops.

But she didn’t let the claws or the snipes get to her. Lilian never gave in, never backed down, never lost faith. I say thanks for paving the way!

Love is Waiting for You. Literally.

Love conquers all. Eventually, right? One of my favorite stories of a determined man finally winning the heart of his beloved is the true tale of Ethel and John Love. Yes, Love. This is the story of a girl who held out against this love-struck sheepherder for five years…but John wore her down. I hereby republish this blog from 2012.

Again, I am intrigued to read between the lines. A city girl leaves Denver, degree in hand, to accept a job as a teacher on a Wyoming ranch. Her classroom consists of seven students. During her school year, she meets her future husband, a handsome, ambitious sheepherder. It takes this stubborn Scotsman five years and dozens of sappy letters to convince Ethel to accept his proposal. What was she waiting on?

Ethel Waxham Born into a relatively wealthy family, Ethel Phoebe Waxham was a fearless young thing with a big heart. She spent a summer volunteering in the slums of New York if that tells you anything. In 1905 she finished at Wellesly and took a job teaching the children on the Red Bluff Ranch in Wyoming. Her letters indicate she fell madly in love with the place and its people, but not so much with rancher John Love. Oh, she liked him well enough and appreciated the fact that he made the eleven-hour ride to see her several times during the school year. Ethel, though, apparently wasn’t ready to settle down. She had, you know, places to go, people to see, things to learn. Or was she simply afraid marriage might mean her life would pass into obscurity?

At the end of that first teaching job, she enrolled in the University of Colorado to obtain a master’s in literature. That’s when the letters started arriving. Lots of them. John Love made no secret of why he was writing. Ethel needed to be his wife and he would wait for her. No matter how long it took. Unless and until she married another.

When Ethel received her degree in 1907, she took a job in Wisconsin, again as a teacher. Still the letters followed. And she answered, often with an apology that she shouldn’t. She didn’t want to give him false hope, after all. Once she even scolded him for closing his letter with “ever yours,” instead of the customary “sincerely yours.” Yet, Ethel did not entwine her life with any other men. She didn’t often attend dances or parties. Strange girl. It’s almost as if she was the female version of George Bailey. Perhaps restless, she moved back to Colorado in 1908 and continued her work, but where was her heart, I wonder?

John G. Love Ethel spoke four languages, enjoyed writing, especially poetry, even staged theatrical productions. But that sheepherder, who by now was doing pretty well for himself, wouldn’t give her any peace. Finally, this fiercely independent American girl caved. The two were married in 1910 and remained together the rest of their lives, happy by all accounts.

If you’d like to know more about John and Ethel, check out this piece from PBS. It’s worth the read.

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