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Male Doctors Attempt to Humiliate Female Colleague in Roseburg


Dr. Bethenia Owens-Adair faced gender discrimination throughout her life. 

In the 1870s, most U.S. medical schools refused to enroll women.  That didn’t intimidate Owens-Adair, a divorced mother who at 27 had opened a successful hat and dress shop in Roseburg, Ore.  Graduating in 1874 from the Eclectic School of Medicine in Philadelphia, Penn., she returned to Roseburg to wind up her business.

Six male physicians sought to humiliate her by inviting her to perform an autopsy involving the genital organs of a man they had treated. To their surprise, she accepted.  When one doctor left the procedure room in disgust, Owens-Adair asked him, “What is the difference between the attendance of a woman at a male autopsy and the attendance of a man at a female autopsy?”

She said word of her performance spread through the town, “shocking and scandalizing the women” and “disgusting and amusing the men,” who thought it was a good joke on the doctors.

Owens-Adair closed her shop and moved to Portland, Ore. At age 40 she earned a traditional medical degree and became one of Oregon’s first female doctors and an outspoken advocate of women’s suffrage and Prohibition.

Sources: Sources: Owens-Adair, B.A. Gleanings from a Pioneer Woman Physician's Life. Portland, Ore.: Mann and Beach, Printers, 1922. Print; Miller, Brandon M. Women of the Frontier. Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Review Press, 2013. Print; "Suffrage and Sterilization: Dr. Owens-Adair." Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health. Oregon State Hospital, 2012. Web. 22 Dec. 2014. http://oshmuseum.org/suffrage-and-sterilization-dr-owens-adair/; Bethenia Owens-Adair. Human Sterilization: It's [sic] Social and Legislative Aspects. Portland, Or., 1922.

Kernan Turner is the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s volunteer editor and coordinator of the As It Was series broadcast daily by Jefferson Public Radio. A University of Oregon journalism graduate, Turner was a reporter for the Coos Bay World and managing editor of the Democrat-Herald in Albany before joining the Associated Press in Portland in 1967. Turner spent 35 years with the AP before retiring in Ashland.