Wyoming’s First Female Physician – Part Two
Last week, we introduced Dr. Lillian Heath, Wyoming’s first female physician. This week we continue her story as written by Lori Van Pelt for wyohistory.org.
As an assistant to Dr. Maghee, Lillian Heath helped perform plastic surgery before the medical practice was a named specialty.
Heath administered anesthetic to a sheepherder who had shot himself in the face in an attempted suicide.
She helped with the more than 30 surgeries required to rebuild the man’s destroyed face. Maghee inserted silver tubes to create nostrils and transplanted skin from the man’s forehead to create a new nose. Heath later recalled the sheepherder’s jawbone grew back by itself.
Miraculously, in those pre-antibiotic days, the man escaped infection. Even so, Heath remembered after all he’d been through, he was still resentful of being alive and he didn’t like his new nose.
Heath learned to be “a perfect anesthetist,” explaining other doctors in the area thought highly of her ability. At first, whiskey was used as an anesthetic, and she had to estimate the best amount for the dosage. Eventually, medical advances made chloroform and, later, ether became the anesthetic of choice. Ether, Heath said, was harder to use.
Dr. Maghee was cautious about using new medications until he knew they were safe, Heath said. Medications used during those early days included “every old time remedy anyone ever heard of,” she said.
Drugs such as morphine, cocaine and opiates were used, and codeine was just coming into use. Alcohol was favored as a skin antiseptic because it was “the only thing found to be effective and lasting,” Heath said. Also, it left no bad after-effects.
In 1881, the notorious outlaw, Big Nose George Parrot, was lynched in Rawlins for the murder of Carbon County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Widdowfield.
Because no one came forward to claim the body, Dr. John Osborne, another Rawlins physician who later served two years as Wyoming’s governor, made a medical bag and a pair of shoes from the dead man’s skin. The shoes are displayed today at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins, along with a portion of Parrot’s skull.
Maghee planned to study the criminal’s brain to try to discern what physical differences might have made him go bad. The doctors sawed Parrot’s skullcap in half and gave the top part to their teenage protégée, Lillian. She kept it and used it as a flowerpot.
Osborne “pickled his [Parrot’s] body in alcohol and used it for dissection purposes until he finally buried it in the alley back of his house,” Heath said in Hubert’s taped interview. “I kept the bandit’s skull top here for a long time as a memento of my training days.”
When Heath began her practice, there were only a couple of other doctors in the area. She said there had “never been an over-plus of doctors until just now,” and when she first began, it was “nip and tuck for awhile.”
Most people who needed help came to her house, but when necessary, she took a wagon or saddled and rode her sorrel horse 30 or 40 miles to attend to those who were injured or ill.
Dr. Heath practiced medicine for about 15 years, although she kept her license current for most of her life. She married Lou J. Nelson in 1898, and they lived in Rawlins for most of their married life.
Lillian modeled clothes for Denver’s Daniels and Fischer’s department store, and in the late 1890s, she joined the Rawlins bicycling club.
She continued to be keenly interested in the medical field, even after she retired, and she toured the Denver hospitals when she was 89.
Lillian Heath Nelson died in 1962 at the age of 96. Although she treated a number of patients who suffered bullet wounds during her career, she never needed to use the .32 caliber revolver she carried in her jacket pocket when she made calls at night.