Celebrate Women’s Suffrage at the Carbon County Museum
When the nation rings in the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment this year, Wyoming will celebrate the 150th anniversary of women voting. In fact, the Wyoming Territory approved the first law in U.S. history granting women the right to vote in 1869 — more than 20 years before it became the 44th state. Aptly named the “Equality State,” Wyoming’s history is full of groundbreaking ladies. In their honor, the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins is featuring Grace, Grit, and Guts: Women of Carbon County, an exhibit that showcases visionary women who impacted south-central Wyoming and beyond. Read on to learn about Dr. Lillian Heath, just one of the innovating females spotlighted in the exhibit.
Dr. Lillian Heath was the first female physician in Wyoming — opening doors for women in medicine not only in Wyoming but also across the United States as a pioneer in her field. Heath’s family moved from Wisconsin to Iowa and eventually settled in Rawlins in 1877, where her father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. She graduated from high school in Rawlins and grew up listening to medical stories and anecdotes from her father’s good friend and Union Pacific physician, Dr. Thomas Maghee.
Early on, Heath became fascinated with medicine, and she worked for and studied under Maghee for about five to seven years as his nurse and assistant. With encouragement from her father and a bit of assistance from Maghee, Heath applied to and was accepted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa. Medical school took three years at the time, and Heath stayed an additional three months to add a specialty in obstetrics. After graduating in 1893 in a class of 22 students, including three women, she returned to Rawlins to begin her medical practice.
The field of medicine was growing and rapidly changing in the late 19th century, with increased knowledge about sanitary practices, the creation of pediatrics as a separate medical specialty, and women very slowly entering the field. Heath’s practice was extraordinary due to the rugged frontier nature of Rawlins and the variety of medical issues she encountered. This included making house calls at all hours — often venturing out dressed in men’s clothing and carrying a .32 caliber revolver for safety. Heath birthed many babies and also conducted more than 30 surgeries on a local sheepherder who shot himself in the face in an attempted suicide.
She transplanted skin, used tubes to reconstruct his nostrils and was determined to reconstruct the man’s face. In this case, the Carbon County doctor actually performed plastic surgery long before it was a medical field — blazing the trail for women in medicine, rural healthcare, and even for future plastic surgeons.
Learn more about Dr. Lillian Heath and other extraordinary women at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins. Grace, Grit, and Guts: Women of Carbon County opens on May 30, 2019. Stay in Rawlins to make a weekend out of your trip and get your (women’s) West on!
Information about Dr. Lillian Heath courtesy of Dolores Pfeuffer-Scherer, PhD, director of marketing and development for the Carbon County Museum.
Photo credits: early portrait and later years portrait of Dr. Lillian Heath, Carbon County Museum; all others of Dr. Lillian Heath; Grand Encampment Museum in Encampment.