Owens-Adair, Bethenia (1840–1926)

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Owens-Adair, Bethenia (1840–1926)

American physician and eugenics advocate. Born Bethenia Angelina Owens on February 7, 1840, in Van Buren County, Missouri; died of inflammation of the lining of the heart on September 11, 1926, in Portland, Oregon; daughter of Thomas Owens (a farmer) and Sarah Damron Owens; Eclectic Medical College, M.D., 1874; University of Michigan, M.D., 1880; married Legrand Hall, on May 4, 1854 (divorced 1859); married Colonel John Adair, in 1884 (died 1915); children: (first marriage) George (b. April 17, 1856); Mattie Belle Palmer (adopted 1875); (second marriage) daughter (b. 1887, died with three days of birth); (adopted) Victor Adair Hill and John Adair, Jr.

Bethenia Owens-Adair was three years old in 1843, when her parents picked up stakes and moved their family from Missouri to Oregon. These were the early years of western migration, and the enterprise was an enormous one. The family, which grew to include nine children, settled finally in 1853 in the Umpqua Valley, across the river from Roseburg, Oregon. Owens-Adair received scant education and was married at age 14 to Legrand Hill, who had been a hired hand on the family farm. Not quite two years later she gave birth to a son, George, and three years after that, in 1859, she divorced her neglectful husband and stopped using his last name. In order to better support her son, she struggled for five years to obtain a basic education, and in 1867 opened a dressmaking and millinery shop in Roseburg.

Owens-Adair supported the suffrage movement, and in 1871 she arranged for Susan B. Anthony to visit Roseburg. She also read the New Northwest, a local women's rights publication, where she learned about women who had become doctors. Her interest in medicine had already been encouraged by a Roseburg physician who, aware of her local reputation for nursing skills, had given her a copy of Gray's Anatomy. In 1873, over the protests of her family, Owens-Adair left Oregon and her successful dressmaking shop to study medicine at the Eclectic Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her son George, who was then 17 (and who would also later become a doctor), moved into the house of Abigail Scott Duniway , editor of the New Northwest. She returned to Oregon in 1874 with her M.D. degree and set up practice in Portland, but was regarded with a measure of suspicion by the local medical community because the Eclectic Medical College was considered somewhat disreputable (the dean was convicted of selling false degrees), and because the medicine she had been taught there, including "Medicated vapor baths," was unorthodox. Thus, in 1878, at age 38, she enrolled at the University of Michigan medical school, intent on obtaining trustworthy credentials. She received her M.D. degree in 1880, and did postgraduate work at the university as well as in Chicago and at some hospitals in Europe. When she returned to Portland in 1881 and set up a successful, traditional medical practice, she became one of the first women doctors in Oregon. She also became active in the Oregon State Medical Society. Although she specialized in diseases of the eyes and ears, the majority of her patients were women and children.

While continuing to support suffrage, Owens-Adair was also active in the local branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and was an officer of the Roseburg lodge of Good Templars. She put both her son George and a daughter she had adopted in 1875, Mattie Belle Parker , through the Willamette Medical College. In 1884, she married Colonel John Adair, a farmer and land developer whom she had known since her youth. Three years later, at age 47, she gave birth to a daughter who died within three days. Over the next several years, while she continued to practice medicine, she and her husband adopted two more children, one of whom was Owens-Adair's grandson. In 1899, seeking relief for her rheumatoid arthritis, the family moved to the drier climate of North Yakima, Washington, where her son George practiced medicine. There Owens-Adair again set up a medical practice.

Around this time she began to take an interest in eugenics, which from the late years of the 19th century was being widely and enthusiastically discussed. Virtuously touted as improvement of the human race, eugenics advocated the selective breeding of humans for intelligence and other praiseworthy qualities. The flip side of this—which many in the movement considered more important—was the discouragement of breeding by "inferior" individuals, specifically by sterilization. In the first quarter of the 20th century, many right-minded, educated, and influential people convinced of their own good intentions believed that eugenic sterilization offered a solution to at least part of society's ills (or to those pesky poor people who behaved contrary to upper-class norms). By the time of her retirement from active practice in 1905, Owens-Adair had become a champion of sterilization for, among others, the mentally retarded, epileptics, and those who were "feebleminded" or "insane." A strong believer in heredity, she felt that preventing such individuals from passing on their genes was a social necessity. (Not so many years later, the Nazis would wholeheartedly agree.) Soon the preeminent advocate for eugenic sterilization in the Pacific Northwest, Owens-Adair joined with several other physicians in 1907 to lobby the legislatures in both Washington State and Oregon for passage of a bill mandating sterilization of people committed to state mental institutions. Washington passed a version of this bill two years later; Oregon followed suit in 1925, one year before her death. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the validity of a sterilization law in Virginia (see entry on Carrie Buck). Among the books Owens-Adair published on the subject were Human Sterilization (1910), Human Sterilization: Its Social and Legislative Aspects (1922), and The Eugenic Marriage Law and Human Sterilization (1922).


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women's Words. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

Kaufman, Martin, et al., eds. Dictionary of American Medical Biography. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.

Uglow, Jennifer S., comp. and ed. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1985.

suggested reading:

Evans, Elwood. History of the Pacific Northwest II, 1889.

Gaston, Joseph. The Centennial History of Oregon, 1912.

Miller, Helen Markely. Woman Doctor of the West: Bethenia Owens-Adair, 1960.

Owens-Adair, Bethenia. Dr. Owens-Adair: Some of Her Life Experiences, 1906.

Ross, Nancy Wilson. Westward the Women, 1944.

Christine Miner Miner , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Owens-Adair, Bethenia (1840–1926)

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