Lovejoy, Esther Pohl (1898–1986)

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Lovejoy, Esther Pohl (1898–1986)

American physician, administrator, feminist, and author. Born Esther Clayson on November 16, 1869, in a logging camp near Seabeck, Washington Territory; died on August 17, 1967, in New York City; the third of six children of Edward Clayson and Annie (Quinton) Clayson; attended lumber-camp school for a few years; Medical School of the University of Oregon, M.D., 1894; attended the West Side Post-graduate School, Chicago, Illinois; married Emil Pohl (a surgeon), in 1894 (died 1911); married George A. Lovejoy (a businessman), in 1913 (divorced 1920); children: one son, Frederick Clayson Pohl (1901–1908).

The extraordinary life of Esther Pohl Lovejoy began in 1869 in a logging camp near Seabeck, Washington Territory, where her father Edward Clayson worked briefly as a lumber merchant. Edward was subsequently employed as a hotel manager, a newspaper editor, and a farmer, but failed in all attempts to support his wife Annie Clayson and their six children. Esther's early education included several years at a lumber-camp school and some lessons from a classics professor who lived in one of the hotels her father managed. She decided on a medical career after watching a doctor deliver her younger sister, but she had to pay for her own education.

In 1890, having saved $60 from a year's work in a department store, Esther began work on her M.D. degree at the University of Oregon, graduating in 1894, with a medal for academic achievement. She was the university's second woman graduate and the first to actually take up the practice of medicine. Shortly after graduation, she married a fellow student, Emil Pohl, and opened a practice with him in Portland.

In 1896, Lovejoy's brothers, who were employed selling supplies to gold prospectors, convinced the couple to move to Skagway, Alaska. The Pohls became the first doctors in the area, working out of a log cabin and visiting patients by dog sled. In 1899, however, when her brother Frederick Clayson was mysteriously murdered, Lovejoy returned to Portland. Her husband remained in Alaska and Esther visited him during the summer months. Personal tragedy struck again in 1908, when the couple's only son Frederick (born in 1901) died of septic peritonitis caused by drinking contaminated milk, and in 1911, when Emil Pohl died of encephalitis.

Esther, who was active in the woman suffrage movement as early as 1904, became adept at combining political activism with her medical practice, supporting not only suffrage but the prohibition movement as well. In 1913, she married Portland businessman George A. Lovejoy, but divorced him in 1920, after he used her name to promote projects of which she did not approve.

During World War I, as a member of the American Medical Women's Association (AMWA), Esther petitioned unsuccessfully for a woman physician's right to serve in the war. In 1917, she set a personal example by going to France, where she worked for the Red Cross as an investigator for claims. In addition, she volunteered in a charity hospital at night, often working until the wee hours of the morning. She later documented her experiences in a book, The House of the Good Neighbor (1919).

Returning to the United States early in 1918, Lovejoy worked under the auspices of the AMWA, raising money for its war relief agency, the American Women's Hospitals (AWH). In 1919, she returned to Europe to help relocate the organization's first hospital which later served as a model for similar hospitals in other parts of the world. Now director of AWH, a position she held for 42 years, Esther often shuttled back and forth from Europe to the United States, soliciting funds for the organization's other projects, which included outpatient clinics, orphanages, and public-health services. Following an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1920, Lovejoy gave up politics and concentrated her efforts solely on her work with AWH in Europe. She also served as president of the AMWA from 1932 to 1933. In her memoir, Certain Samaritans, Lovejoy detailed her work during the 1920s, and the effort to assist the uprooted and impoverished of Europe. The AWH also aided victims of the Tokyo earthquake of 1923, and the Florida hurricane of 1926, and continued to be active through World War II and the postwar period.

Lovejoy was the recipient of numerous honors during her lifetime, including the medal of the Legion of Honor (France), the Gold Cross of Saint Sava (Yugoslavia), the Gold Cross of the Holy Sepulcher (Jerusalem), and the Gold Cross of the Order of George I (Greece). She was also a two-time recipient of the Elizabeth Blackwell Medal of the AMWA.

By her example alone, Lovejoy inspired a number of women to take up medicine, but she also provided more practical support in 1936, endowing the Pohl Scholarships for medical students at the University of Oregon in memory of her husband and son, and stipulating that a third of the awards go to women. In two later books, Women Physicians and Surgeons (1939) and Women Doctors of the World (1957), Lovejoy also documented the work of women physicians all over the world. Esther Pohl Lovejoy retired in 1967, age 97, and died of pneumonia just five months later.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.


Lovejoy's papers are held by the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Lovejoy, Esther Pohl (1898–1986)

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