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Lilian Heath, the First Female Doctor in Wyoming, Was Happy to Overstep Her Bounds

Lilian Heath. Such a demure name.

She was anything but.

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

Lilian Heath

Lilian Heath

in the wide-open rail road 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 deliver 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 of three women in the class. After completing her training, she returned to Rawlins to practice medicine and was well-received … by the men folk. 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 way, 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 door stop to a pipe holder.

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

My guess is, there were a few other heads 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!

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