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Monday, September 13, 2010

L(ucetta) A(melia) Smith, M.D. Redux

A wise scholar and kind friend recently told me that she hopes I never find all of the answers. I agree with her -- the quest is the thing, a continuous reward. But here is a bit more information on a woman who has been the subject of at least two separate quests involving historical detection and identification . . . . and some thoughts on the nature of historical research in the bargain.

In the summer of 2009, amid work on my biography of Esther Pohl Lovejoy, I was researching other nineteenth century women physicians in Oregon at the incredible Historical Collections & Archives at the Oregon Health & Science University. As archivist Sara Piasecki blogged at the time, we found evidence in an alumni register that the L.A. Smith, M.D. who graduated from the Willamette University Medical Department in 1868 was a woman. This would have made her the first woman to graduate from medical school in Oregon and the West. Who was she? We tried to find out more. Of course, the practice of using initials was pervasive -- women professionals often did it, but it makes the job of the historian a complicated one.

Then, in December 2009, Sara Piasecki uncovered additional materials from registrar, historian, and supporter of women students at OHSU Lucy Davis Phillips. When I was able to comb through the materials it became clear that Davis Phillips had also been on the trail of L A Smith. But because we did not have access to the records of her search we followed paths that she had also explored without knowing that they led her (and us) to dead ends. Now with these materials at hand we could find out more.

In those new materials are letters from Davis Phillips to various people trying to track down L A Smith. In 1937 she wrote to the Association of American Medical Colleges trying to clear things up. Did they have an L A Smith, a woman student, graduating from Willamette in 1868? "Somewhere I got the name Lucella Amelia for this person," she wrote, "but I am beginning to suspect that the name was confused with Lucetta Amelia Smith, a graduate of Ann Arbor, who was in Roseburg, Oregon for many years" now living in California. Additional correspondence supported the idea that the 1868 graduate L A Smith was a man and Lucella was really Lucetta Amelia Smith, who practiced for some time in Roseburg. So the case was closed and Angela L. Ford and Ella A. J. Ford have the distinction of being Oregon's first medical women graduates in 1877.

Was I disappointed? Sure, a bit. But glad to have at least some of the questions answered.


Imagine, then, my delight at finding Lucetta Amelia Smith, M.D. in the 1928 edition of Women of the West: A Series of Biographical Sketches of Living Eminent Women in the Eleven Western States of the United States of America ed. Max Binheim, (Los Angeles: Publishers Press, 1928) 164-5 on the same page with Lillian Tingle. Here is more about the twentieth century woman physician who, while not the "first" L A Smith, was a significant figure in Oregon and women's medical history:

"SMITH, Lucetta Amelia (Miss) M.D., born in Ionia, Michigan, September 8, 1880, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose G. Smith, a resident of Oregon for nineteen years. Physician. Graduated from the University of Michigan, 1906. Interneship, Woman's Hospital of Chicago, 1906-1907. Member of local Medical Ass'n, President of local Business and Professional Women's Club. Member: American Medical Woman's Assn, National Fed. of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, University Woman's Club, etc. Home: Masonic Bldg., Roseburg, Oregon."

Lucetta Amelia Smith, M.D. occupies a different place in the story of Oregon medical women than we first supposed. The quest for L A Smith undoubtedly gave me more perspective on early graduates in Oregon than I would have had otherwise. And now Lucetta Amelia Smith joins the ranks of her important cohort of colleagues -- women who came to Oregon with medical degrees who worked in their profession and for the advancement of women. Calling all Roseburg historians -- we want to know more!  And never mind finding all of the answers -- the quest is its own best reward.

Finally, what more can I say about an archivist who is willing to go on this journey with a researcher. Brava and thank you, Sara. You are the very, very best.

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