Biography of Bethina Angelina Owens-Adair

MRS. DR. OWENS-ADAIR. – Berthina Angelina, the second daughter of Thomas and Sarah Owens, was born February 7,1840, in Van Buren county, Missouri. She saw her fourth birthday in her father’s Western home on Clatsop Plains, Clatsop county, Oregon, her parents having made the then dangerous and tedious journey across the then dangerous and tedious journey across the plains with ox-teams in the summer and fall of 1843. At this time Berthina was a small child, delicate in stature for her age, and having a highly nervous and sensitive nature, but with a strong, vigorous constitution, thus early showing a good physical foundation for great perseverance and endurance. The country reached by her parents was new to them, and virtually unoccupied, save by Indians. It was a wilderness unbroken by the means and appliances of our civilization, with no visible evidence of its immediate settlement and development. If it were a nice thing to do for these elder people to leave their old established homes, social relations and open markets, thousands of miles away, and come into this new land, from which they could not return, their experience at the end of the journey taught them that they had retraced their steps in their lives to what appeared to be a childish adventure, and to a place where a child might lead them. This young girl was now as old as were her parents in all of their new surroundings. And we offer this beautiful thought here, that seems like a mirror, as it were; for it reflected the impression of the future of this household:

“The gloomiest day hath gleams of light.
The darkest wave hath bright foam near it.
And twinkles through the cloudiest night
Some solitary star to cheer it.”

In plain view, where the sensible horizon receives the sun’s dip at eventide, beyond the moaning sea, and on the beautiful Clatsop Plains, this young girl took the first step in her life, with that small band of pioneers, and with them began her hopeful march towards a higher civilization, which in all similar cases ahs been attended with trial, privation and suffering. In the little to encourage them she was an equal partaker. In all that brought success she had a joint interest. Domestic duties or confinement to the house had but little favor with her. The long, open-air journey had prepared her, as a bird, for a more open or outdoor life; and, as she was fond of domestic animals, especially the horse, she found full flow for her animated spirits in assisting her father in his pursuits. She was of a precocious and hopeful disposition, and looked, as her days increased in number, for a better time to come to herself and family, with its rewards for making so many unfortunate sacrifices. And thus she spent her time until she was thirteen years of age, with no school to attend until she was eleven years old, when a teacher came into the neighborhood to teach the traditional three months’ school each year. Under that arrangement Berthina received the benefit of that school for three months.

At that period her father moved to the Umpqua valley and settled near Roseburg. On that trip, as on other occasions, Berthina was of great help to her father in looking after and driving stock; and if, in consequence of her excellent health and vigor, she was enabled to run and jump well, and do a boy’s work, it was her father’s pleasure to call her his “boy,” it but bespoke the character we accord to her at her age in frontier experience, which should exist in a youth to secure in time proper strength in mental development. Hardly had her family become settled in the Umpqua valley before this uneducated and inconsiderate child followed the wretched custom then in vogue, – early marriage, – by marrying Mr. Legrand Hill May 4, 1854. As might have been expected, that marriage did not prove a happy one. At the expiration of four years a separation took place; and the unfortunate wife found herself, at the age of eighteen years, broken in health, penniless, and with a two-year-old baby boy in her arms. Those four years of trial and hardship had developed the thoughtless child into a thoughtful, self-reliant woman.

She found a home in her father’s house, where she, with returning health and strength, was determined to educate herself and fit herself for the duties now resting upon her. At that time she could scarcely read and write; for she had not been to school but one summer in her life. To aid her in her purposes she sought all manner of work, even washing; but her father and protested and said: “No, why not stay at home and be satisfied. I am able and willing to support you.” At that time, the spring of 1858, there was as good a school in Roseburg as there was in Oregon. Arising at five a.m., she helped milk, assisted in house-work, and by half past eight was ready for school. On Saturdays, despite her father’s wish, she did her washing, and out of school hours did her ironing, thus realizing from three to five dollars per week, and keeping up with her classes all the while. At the end of three months she found her way through the third reader.

In September she returned to Clatsop Plains with her sister, Mrs. Hobson, who resided there. As she had applied for a divorce, and a change of her name to that before her marriage, with the custody of her child, she returned to Roseburg the following spring to attend court. This suit was hotly contested on account of the custody of the child. S.F. Chadwick was counsel for Mrs. Hill, and B.F. Dowell for Mr. Hill. Mr. Chadwick succeeded in getter her the divorce, the child, and in changing the name of his client to her maiden name, Owens. Mrs. Owens always has a kind word for Mr. Chadwick for his cheering words in her early troubles and trials. After this success she renewed her efforts to sustain herself by sewing and for a year and a half was very successful. She grew discontented, and wanted to return to her studies. Though attractive in appearance, she would not listen to offers of marriage, certainly not until she had education enough to make an intelligent wife, if she married at all.

With this feeling she returned to Clatsop, and late in the fall of 1860 visited an old friend, Mrs. Munson of Oysterville. They were playmates in early life, and ever afterwards devoted friends. Mrs. Munson suggested that Mrs. Owens remain with her and go to school; and this offer the lonely widow accepted. She took in washing to pay for the schooling, and for three months, with assistance evenings, made great proficiency in reading and grammar, and returning to her sister at Clatsop Plains said: “I am determined to go to school until I get at least a good common education. I do not wish to make my living over the washtub, nor at any other form of drudgery. Nor am I willing to live with any relative for merely board and clothes; for I know that I can educate both myself and child, which shall be accomplished.” Mrs. Hobson approved of this determination, and consented that her sister should spend six months with them; and they would pay her board six months in Astoria, thereby enabling Mrs. Owens to attend school for that time.

She was to live with Mrs. Hobson during the summer and in Astoria in the winter. This plan was carried out. Now Mrs. Owens needed a little money, which she proposed making by teaching a little country school. So she said to her sister: “By getting up at five A.M., I can get through with all the farm work by eight or half-past eight; and then I could be ready to teach at nine o’clock. Do you think Mr. Hobson could get me a few scholars?” She asked Mr. Hobson; and he told her to take the horse herself and get them, which she did, and received the promise of sixteen children at two dollars per quarter. This was her first effort in teaching; and it was made in the old Presbyterian church of Clatsop Plains, where of her sixteen pupils three were further advanced than herself, and ranged in age from five to fourteen years. She was an earnest and devoted teacher, and frequently borrowed the books of the advanced scholars, and, with the aid of her brother-in-law in the evenings, managed to keep ahead of her work. The advanced scholars did not know that this teacher was not entirely competent to instruct them.

From this school her first fortune was realized. It amounted to twenty-five dollars. She added to this treasure by picking blackberries on Saturdays in their season; and in this way her summer time was occupied. But when winter came around she found herself, son and nephew in Astoria ready to go to school again. Her courage never faltered; and she renewed her washing on Saturdays in order to provide necessities for herself and boy. Here was a trial indeed, – an examination in arithmetic to fix her class. Arithmetic she had scarcely studied at all, and had found it extremely difficult. A kind teacher seeing her trouble allowed her to go into both the first and second classes, and after school hours helped her forward. She felt her situation fully when she found herself reciting with children from eight to fourteen years old. This condition was of short duration; for in a few weeks, by extra hours of study, she found herself rapidly advancing, and at the end of the first term was in most of the leading classes.

Many were watching her progress; and, as the teacher’s young wife was prevented by ill health from longer assisting in the school, the directors for the second term, mindful of the industry of Mrs. Owens, appointed her assistant at a salary of twenty-five dollars per month. This offer was gladly accepted. She asked for and received permission to recite in two classes, arithmetic and algebra. In addition to this she joined a reading class, also a sewing class, each meeting twice a week. She paid her board by doing the housework of six or eight rooms, which, compared with former labors, was an easy task. A young lady from Oysterville, who had been in an advanced class the preceding term, was now a pupil of Mrs. Owens in most studies. The wife of the teacher having resumed her place later on, Mrs. Owens did the washing for two large families at one dollar and a half each per week, and another at two dollars per week. This was done by beginning at three o’clock A.M. Mondays and Wednesdays, and being at her school desk by ten a.m. at the latest on those days. To get her ironing done she might be found many nights late, with her book before her, studying hard her lesson while pushing the iron. With her school, as assistant teacher, she had saved a little money; but with the greatest economy she had hard work to make ends meet during the winter of 1862 and 1863.

In the spring Captain Farnsworth, a worthy man and pilot on the Columbia river bar, having noticed the spirit and determination of Mrs. Owens to succeed, offered her ample assistance to enable her to obtain a thorough, collegiate education, which generous offer was declined, this strong, self-willed, earnest woman preferring to rely solely upon her own exertions for advancement rather than incur an obligation from even so sincere and honorable a friend. She took a school at Bruce Point at twenty-five dollars per month, at which great satisfaction was given, in view of which the term was continued. When she applied to Judge Olney, school superintendent, for a certificate to teach, he said: ” I know you are competent to teach that school; for I have had my eyes on you for several years, and am well convinced that you will do your duty.” This was a tonic to her energies; and she pushed forward in her work. From that school she received a call to Oysterville to take charge of the school there, not forgotten by her old friend Mrs. Munson, a school in which three years before Mrs. Owens was an ignorant but a willing scholar. This was accepted; and but a short time before the term ended she was offered the school on Clatsop Plains at forty dollars per month. This being better than any offer yet made, it was accepted.

Having saved all she could of her earnings, she concluded to build a little home. Being an expert with a sewing machine, and with crochet needles and crochet work, then in fashion, she had in nine months, above all expenses, saved two hundred and twenty-five dollars. With part of this money she purchased the ground on which now stands the residence of Mr. I.W. Case, of Astoria, and contracted with a carpenter to build a house thereon. She moved into an old building at Lexington, now called Skipanon, and pursued her school and needle work. This was a healthful place for the young widow and her son; and by persistent industry she had saved one hundred and sixty dollars by July 1, 1864, at which time she was enabled to move into her own little home in Astoria. There she spent her time in improving herself and boy, doing such work as offered, occasionally teaching, but residing in her own home, and at the end of three years found herself out of debt, with a neatly furnished home, and having the respect and confidence of the community to cheer her on her way.

In the fall of 1867 she went to Roseburg to visit her parents. They urged her to remain; and she did so. In the spring, by the aid of a brother-in-law, she established herself in the millinery business in Roseburg. For two and a half years she had uninterrupted success, when opposition appeared in the form of an expert milliner, who at once became the attraction, and left the pioneer milliner without business; and she even laughed at Mrs. Owens for having no better claim to the trade than that she had picked up the business. Mrs. Owens’ power to overcome obstacles was quickened by this treatment; and she went to San Francisco late in the fall of 1870, and received instructions from the best milliner in that city. Her son was left with Reverend McGadden. She returned to Roseburg in the spring with a fine stock of goods suited to the season. With this she succeeded beyond hope, and realized a yearly profit of fifteen hundred dollars. Her business increased from year to year. In 1871 her son was placed in the University of California.

Her desire to receive a scientific, medical education now began to grow upon her. Her experience in the sickroom increased this determination to improve her mind in the study of materia medica; and after witnessing, through the ignorance of a physician, an unpardonable case of malpractice upon a little child, she at once procured from Doctor Hamilton of Roseburg such medical books as in his opinion she should study. He handed her first “Gay’s Anatomy,” and at the same time gave her some instructions. Hon. S.F. Chadwick, being present and hearing the conversation, went up and said to Mrs. Owens, “Go ahead, you will win.” The other friend who encouraged her in this study was Uncle Jesse Applegate, whose excellent advice caused her to respect him as a father. His encouraging words were always an incentive to greater efforts. Pursuing her studies until she felt that her intention to go abroad and take a regular course in medicine should be known by her parents, she announced it to them, only to receive in return a storm of objections from every quarter, but which ere repelled with a pleasant reference to them.

A lady friend remarked to her: “Well, I always gave you credit for being a very smart woman; but indeed you must be crazy to undertake the study of medicine.” Mrs. Owens observed, with an assuring smile: “You will change your mind when I come home a physician and charge you more for doctoring you than I now get for your hats and ribbons.” Her friend replied: “Not much. You are a good milliner; but I don’t want any woman doctor around me.” Mrs. Owens said: “Tim will tell; and people sometimes change their minds.” As a matter of fact, in less than three years this same lady applied to Mrs. Owens for medical treatment. During her last year’s business at Roseburg, Mrs. Owens gave much attention to temperance matters, and received the highest office in the Good Templar lodge. She also was an earnest advocate of women’s suffrage, and wrote often on those subjects.

In 1872 she went to Philadelphia to begin a regular course of medicine. Reaching Philadelphia, she at once matriculated in the Eclectic Medical University, and employed a private tutor; and then one hundred dollars secured her the assistance of the dean for one hour each day. Twice each week her afternoons were devoted to lectures and clinics at the Pennsylvania Hospital with the lady students from all the city schools. After attending two terms of lectures, she receive her degree, returned to Portland, forming a partnership with Dr. W.I. Adams. They opened out on First street near Taylor, one part of their store being assigned to millinery, the other to drugs and medicines. The millinery store was attended to by her sister. At the end of a year this partnership ended; and, as Mrs. Owens had been successful, the millinery store was no longer needed as a reserve. Her son graduated at the Willamette University in 1877, being then a little over twenty-one years of age.

Although prospering in her profession, she felt that she should have a more thorough training in that science, and a degree from an old or regular school of medicine, as she intended to be second to no physician in the state. When her purpose in this respect was made known, her friends again made strong objections, saying, “Why not leave well enough alone.” Strange to say, her old, esteemed friend Jesse Applegate was strongly opposed to her going to college. He went to Portland to plead with Mrs. Owens against a second collegiate course. He said, “Now that you have the foundation of a medical education, close application to your profession will increase your knowledge and power.” She established her son at Goldendale, Washington Territory, and on the 2d of September, 1878, was a passenger for California en route for Philadelphia. She went prepared with valuable letters from governors, United States senators, and eminent doctors, by which aids she hoped to be admitted into the renowned Jefferson College of Philadelphia, or the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York.

At Philadelphia Mrs. Owens called upon Doctor Hannah Long Shore, a member of the first class of women graduates from the Philadelphia Woman’s Medical College, and received very flattering attentions from the lady physicians. She had a cordial welcome when she called on the justly celebrated Professor Gross of Jefferson College, and an invitation to breakfast with him. Among other things he said: “I would gladly open the doors of Jefferson to you my dear little woman; but I have not the power to do so. That power rests with the board of regents; and they are an age behind the times, and would be enraged and shocked at the mere suggestion of admitting a lady student.” He further said; “Why not enter the Woman’s college? It is just as good as the Jefferson. There students are subjected to the same board of examiners, and obtain just as high a standing.” While Mrs. Owens acknowledged this to be true, she stated that graduating from a woman’s college did not stand at par out west, and that her diploma must place her in the front rank out there. Doctor Gross then remarked: “The University of Michigan is the school for you. It is a long-term school, and stands second to none in America.”

After trying New York, where she found the same conditions as at Jefferson, she went to Ann Harbor, Michigan, where she at once matriculated. A week later the lectures began, and with them hard and incessant work for Mrs. Owens. For nine months she averaged sixteen hours per day, and even in vacation gave ten hours to this study and answering in writing questions in anatomy. When her professor learned this he said, “You have done more than any student of the university ever did, and more than I ever expected any student would do.” Her college custom was to rise at four A.M., take a cold bath, use the brush freely, exercise vigorously for ten minutes, then study till breakfast at seven, and work regularly during the day. She rested a half hour after dinner and supper, and continued studying till nine P.M., when she retired, to sleep soundly. She was always in perfect health, and ready for work. Mrs. Owens at the end of the second term, graduated in a class of ninety-nine, many of whom were literary graduates before taking a medical course. Having arranged to spend three years away from practice in study and in improving herself in her profession, she now devoted herself to hospital work in Chicago during the summer of 1880. There her son Doctor Hill joined her, and gave his time to hospital work until October, where with his mother he returned to Ann Harbor, where he entered the senior medical class for a past graduate degree.

Mrs. Owens, now a full-fledged M.D., as resident physician attended all advanced lectures in medicine, surgery, therapeutics and practice in the homeopathic department. In addition she took two chairs in the literary department, history and English literature. She was given free access to the hospital, and the opportunity of seeing all operations. Thus for another six months she was occupied from eight A.M. to six P.M., excepting an hour for dinner, either with lectures or clinics. At the end of that time, Doctor Hill having passed an satisfactory examination, Mrs. Owens and Doctor Hill, accompanied by two lady physicians left for Europe in April, 1881. She visited Glasgow, Edinburgh and Hamburg. They were entertained by a former classmate and graduate of Ann Harbor, Mrs. Doctor Fulgraff, who had located at Hamburg to practice her profession of dentistry.

From Hamburg they went to Dresden, taking in Berlin and Potsdam, and seeing everything of interest. Before leaving Dresden, Doctor Hill became homesick and declared that he would rather see his Western sweetheart than all the cities of the old world, and soon turned his steps homeward. The lady M.D’s. continued on through Austria, Prussia, Switzerland and France, giving special attention to hospitals and medical laboratories. While in Paris, Mrs. Owens learned by letter that urgent matters of business required her early presence in Portland by July 1st following; and, being anxious to return to practice again, she returned home. At New York Mrs. Owens had some trouble with the custom-house officials in reference to instruments purchased in Paris, and on which a duty was claimed of seventy-five dollars; but, as they were for her own use in her profession, and as she was equal to any emergency, she came off first best.

She was cordially received by friends at Portland on her arrival, the 28th of June, and on the twenty-ninth patients came to her for treatment. Her neat and commodious rooms were located on the corner of First and Main streets, over the drug store of her old friend, Dr. O.P.S. Plummer, which rooms were occupied until Mrs. Owens removed from Portland in July, 1887. There she obtained a rapidly growing and lucrative practice, her receipts after the first year averaging five hundred dollars per month. Mrs. Owens was extremely gratified that, no sooner had she announced her readiness to receive patients, that her parlors were filled by old acquaintances, who were her friends in the days of her trials and hardships; and even her enemies, if such they could be called, came also, all bearing evidence of their confidence in her, and the respect in which they held her as a physician. With all of this combination of poverty, ignorance and efforts made for work, the promised day of rewards to compensate her for the struggles and sacrifices made to enable her to reach the goal of her ambition was now dawning upon her. Many incidents might be given of deep interest; but we will refer to only one.

One morning a woman entered her office pale and trembling from pain and long suffering. She said: “I have been ill for years; and the doctors say I can never be cured. But I hear so much of your skill that I have come to see if you can give me any relief.” Who should this be but Doctor Owen’s old rival in the millinery business at Roseberg in former years, Mrs. Jackson, who went on to say: “We have paid out nearly everything for doctors’ bills; and I know if you cannot help me you will tell me so.” Doctor Owens examined her case and said to her: “I not only think you can expect relief, but believe your disease may be cured. I will treat you for two or three weeks, and then teach you to treat yourself; and if you will follow my advice for one year I believe you will recover your health.” With tears in her eyes she said: “No one will be more faithful than I will be. What time shall I come to your office?” The Doctor replied: “You are not able to come to my office; but I will now take you home in my carriage, and then treat you every day until you are better.” Mrs. Jackson remarked one day; “You are heaping coals of fire on my head by all this kindness; but I do want to tell you that I always did have the greatest respect for you.” Doctor Owens replied: “I do not look at it in that way; for really I owe you a great debt of gratitude. Had you not gone out there to Roseburg and goaded me on, by showing me how little I knew about the millinery business, I might still be out there plodding along making common hats and poorer bonnets. You proved the truth of what a friend of mine once said to me, namely: “If I wished to make you grow two inches taller, I would endeavor to press you down; and you would grow out of sheer resentment. So you see after all, Mrs. Jackson, you have been my good angel in disguise.” This was one of many similar incidents in Doctor Owens’ professional experience. Mrs. Jackson was in a year entirely restored.

Dr. Owen’s skill became known and acknowledged far and near, which soon brought fortune and, better than that, great satisfaction; for the Doctor really loved her profession, and received much pleasure from her ability to relieve suffering of all kinds.

After three years of constant and hard but extremely gratifying work, and in the glow of her prosperity, she met a friend of her childhood days in Colonel John Adair. Very soon after this meeting “by chance, in the usual way,” Colonel Adair prevailed upon the successful Doctor to add his name to that of Owens; and the friends of both were surprised and pleased by receiving their wedding tokens of remembrance and respect. The event was solemnized in the First Congregational church of Portland on the eve of July 24, 1884; and a happier couple, we think, never plighted their troth in that or any other church. This is an interesting sequel to the early pioneer days of the little child that, on the beautiful Clatsop Plains, showed such great promise of future worth and usefulness.

“A noble ambition for excellence is the motive power of the soul, and lies at the foundation of all that is heroic and good and great.”


History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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