Owens-Adair, Bethenia (Angelina)

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OWENS-ADAIR, Bethenia (Angelina)

Born 7 February 1840, Van Buren County, Missouri; died 11 September 1926, Astoria, Oregon

Daughter of Thomas and Sarah Damron Owens; married Legrand Hill, 1854; Colonel John Adair, 1884

Bethenia Owens-Adair's pioneer experience began in 1843 when her parents left Missouri with their three children for the first great migration to the Pacific Northwest. No formal schooling was available until Owens-Adair was twelve and a young teacher boarding with the Owens family offered a three-month school, but Owens-Adair was inspired to value education.

At the age of fourteen, Owens-Adair married Hill, a farm-hand previously employed by her father. Hill's idleness and business failures, coupled with his temper and harshness with their son, convinced Owens-Adair to leave him after four years of marriage. Owens-Adair obtained a divorce in 1859 and resumed her maiden name.

Supporting herself by sewing, nursing, and taking in laundry, Owens-Adair attended schools in Roseburg and Astoria and became qualified to teach. In 1867, she established a successful millinery business in Roseburg, and sent her son to the University of California at Berkeley in 1870. In 1871 she made the local arrangements for Susan B. Anthony's lecture in Roseburg and became a subscription agent and contributor to Abigail Scott Duniway's women's rights paper, the New Northwest.

In 1872 Owens-Adair sold her millinery shop and enrolled in the Eclectic Medical College in Philadelphia. She returned to Oregon in a year with her M. D. degree and was ridiculed by orthodox doctors who were critical of her "bogus degree." Specializing in women's and children's complaints, Owens-Adair built a substantial practice in Portland but was eager to obtain more medical knowledge.

Owens-Adair was accepted by the University of Michigan Medical School in 1878 and received her degree in 1880. She followed this with a summer of hospital and clinical work in Chicago, six months of study as a resident physician in Michigan, and a tour of European hospitals. She returned to Portland in 1881 and established a specialized practice in eye and ear diseases. She later served as a country doctor in Oregon and Washington.

In 1884 Owens-Adair married Colonel John Adair, a West Point graduate, farmer, and land developer whom she had known during childhood. Their only child was born in 1887, and died within three days. Later, the Adairs adopted two children. Owens-Adair had adopted a daughter in 1875.

Following her retirement in 1905, Owens-Adair intended to "write a book on medicine from a woman's standpoint." However, she decided to make her first attempt at "book-making" a volume of her life experiences, biographical sketches of pioneers, letters received from friends, and her own articles, letters, and speeches. The first 100 pages of Dr. Owens Adair: Some of Her Life Experiences (1906) were devoted to what Owens-Adair described as the "short, plain, truthful story of my own life…purposefully stripped of the sentiment, love, and romance with which my nature has always been super-charged." She sought to assist in the preservation of the history of Oregon and to show, through her own life story, the labor and struggle of pioneer woman. Local reviewers praised her work and noted that they saw "no view to self-praise or egotism" in Owens-Adair's "close personal history."

In 1922 Owens-Adair published a 64-page volume entitled A Souvenir: Dr. Owens-Adair to Her Friends. At the age of eighty-two, her sentimentality was evident as she presented "a pretty little booklet" to preserve "some of the beautiful reviews of the first child of my brain" and congratulations received from friends on her eighty-second birthday.

Owens-Adair was the pioneer advocate in the Pacific Northwest for eugenic sterilization. Believing "every child has the right to be born mentally and physically fit," she proposed bills in the Oregon and Washington legislatures to require that "Criminals, epileptics, insane and all feeble-minded persons committed to any state institution…shall be sterilized, except such as in the judgement of a legally appointed board of examiners…are exempted." Her two 1922 publications on eugenic sterilization are examples of the major arguments she made in her 17-year battle for sterilization laws. Owens-Adair influenced the passage of a sterilization law in Washington in 1909 and the later passage of a law in Oregon—laws she believed were humanitarian in nature.

Although she never wrote the woman's medical book she had considered at retirement, she lectured and wrote articles on causes vital to her—temperance, woman suffrage, the values of vigorous exercise and physical culture for women, the proper raising of children, and the influence of heredity and habit—and was recognized as a straightforward and intelligent writer.

The marker at Owens-Adair's grave reads: "Only the enterprising and the brave are actuated to become pioneers." Owens-Adair had dedicated herself to a life of action and enterprise, dreaming of the "new woman" whom she had described in an address to the 1896 Women's Congress: "She will be cleansed of the dross of dependence, and the prejudice of past ages."

Other Works:

Human Sterilization: Its Social and Legislative Aspects (1922). The Eugenic Marriage Law and Human Sterilization—The Situation in Oregon: A Statement (1922).


Evans, E., et al., History of the Pacific Northwest II (1889). Gaston, J., The Centennial History of Oregon IV (1912). Gray, D., "Professional Women in the West," in Women of the West (1976). Miller, H. M., Woman Doctor of the West: Bethenia Owens-Adair (1960). Ross, N. W., Westward the Women (1944). Smith, H. K., ed., With Her Own Wings (1948).

Other references:

New Northwest (1871-87).


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