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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Viola Coe, M.D. (ca. 1863-1943)

Today’s profile is of physician and suffragist Viola Mae Coe, one of the five women physicians in the 1891-1892 Portland Women’s Medical Society, a group that preceded the revitalized women’s association that Esther Pohl headed in 1905. In later years Coe and Esther Pohl Lovejoy would come into conflict in Oregon suffrage politics.

Coe was born in Indiana and taught school before her marriage to physician Henry Waldo Coe in North Dakota in 1882. After her first child was born she matriculated at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago and received her M.D. in 1890. The Coes came to Portland in 1891 and Viola Coe became one of the founding members of the first Portland Women’s Medical Society. The Portland City Directories and references in the Medical Sentinel (of which her husband Henry Waldo Coe was editor) and other newspaper accounts indicate that she established a practice early in her Portland years and had a role in the family’s Sanitarium Company, incorporated by her husband Henry in 1899, which later became Morningside Hospital, specializing in care for mentally ill patients and nervous disorders. The Coes secured the contract to provide care for patients that the state of Alaska deemed “insane” (see below for resources and information on the unfolding story of the institution). Conflicts in their working and financial relationship, including competing bids for the Alaska contract, led to a divorce and suits regarding assets in 1914-15.

Coe was active in the campaign for votes for women in Oregon. When suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway became ill during the final 1912 campaign Coe became the chair of the Oregon State Equal Suffrage Association and was in that position when women achieved the vote that November. She is pictured in the iconic image of the signing of the Oregon equal suffrage proclamation on November 30, 1912 with Duniway and Governor Oswald West. After Oregon women achieved the vote Coe worked with the National Council of Women Voters. Across these years she and Esther Pohl (Lovejoy) tangled dramatically over suffrage tactics in rival organizations, but you’ll have to wait for the Lovejoy biography for the rest of that story!

In her later years Coe engaged in Red Cross work during the First World War and directed a maternity hospital in Portland from 1916-1925. She died in Portland in 1943.

For more information on Coe see:

“The Medical Club of Portland,” Medical Sentinel 13 no 3 (March 1905): 3.

“Suffragists Busy; Campaign Plans,” Oregon Journal, July 7, 1912, 7.

“Dr. Viola Coe Campaigns,” Oregonian, August 13, 1913, 2.

“Dr. Coe Gets Contract to Care for Insane,” Portland Telegram, March 21, 1914, 2.

Coe v. Coe 75 Or. 145 [1915]

“Hospital Lease Taken,” Oregonian, December 3, 1924, 6.

“Widely-Known Medical Woman Aged 80, Dies,” Oregon Journal, May 28, 1943, 4. For

For more on Morningside Hospital see the blog entries at “Historical Notes from OHSU, the incredible history of medicine site maintained by Sara Piasecki, Archivist at the Historical Collections & Archives at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland at:

Ellen Ganley and Karen Perdue and their research team have an excellent and developing resource blog on the role of Morningside in the history of Alaska mental and medical health history at

For more on the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago see Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 79-80; 247-48.