Lavinia Waterhouse (1809-1890) lives at the intersection of a tangle of ideas that, to the 21st Century mind, have no business being together. She was a physician practicing in the midst of California’s Gold Rush who was also a Spiritualist who was also a poet and artist who was also a leading suffragist who was also a businesswoman (at least during the rare intervals when Sacramento managed to not be critically flooded or on fire). That combination of hard-nosed practicality and artistic whimsy, baffling to us, formed a cohesive and sensible whole in the Nineteenth Century, each part reinforcing the others in subtle ways that could never happen again.
Lavinia Gertrude Goodyear was born in 1809 in New York, and for the first sixteen years of her life we know absolutely nothing about her. It is not until 1825, when both of her parents died, that Lavinia steps into history again. Losing both parents simultaneously a very19th Century sort of occurrence that kicked off a string of supremely very 19th Century biographical happenings. She was married at the age of 21 to Charles Waterhouse, a tuberculosis-ridden man with whom she had thirteen children of whom only three survived.
That alone goes far to explain how all of Lavinia Waterhouse’s complicated interests hung together. When you have to bury ten children, Spiritualism, or the belief that one can communicate with the dead, takes on an aching plausibility, aided by the fact that the Spiritualists, unusual amidst the religious landscape of the long Nineteenth Century, practiced total gender equality, a cause that would form a major part of Waterhouse’s public existence.
That would be in the future, but to return to the cavalcade of misery, Waterhouse and her husband decided to move out West in 1852, lured by the promise of California’s clean air and water that magically cured all ailments. Disease, it was advertised, was impossible in the new state, so bring the kids! The family set out, hoping that the change would cure Charles of his tuberculosis. As it happened, he died in 1856, just three years after finally reaching Sacramento, leaving Lavinia to raise their children by herself in a frontier town that alternately flooded and caught on fire with amazing regularity.
She had survived a full year of covered wagon travel west, the death of ten children, and her own husband’s sad and inevitable end. The only options were to marry again, to give up and head back east, or to go into business for herself. She chose the latter, advertising as a physician and midwife specializing in the application of the Water Cure.
Abruptly becoming a doctor was a relatively common practice at the time. The most “formally educated” of male doctors had typically only two years of actual study, followed by a brief apprenticeship, followed by a slap on the back and the best of wishes to not kill too many patients. Regulation even in the civilized East was spotty, and in the loose-and-fast West, was not remotely a thing. So, to up and declare one’s self a practicing physician was not, in fact, madly eccentric, nor was the choice to specialize in the Water Cure.
The Water Cure, which attempted to cure patients of disease through an interminable and rigorous schedule of bathing and water consumption, was one of the few areas of medical practice where women could operate freely. The science behind it was virtually non-existent, but then again, so was the science behind most things that Professional male doctors employed at the frontier. But the Water Cure practitioners had something going for them that others didn’t: a commitment to women’s public health that didn’t balk before Victorian prudery.
Waterhouse made her office a center where women could come to get honestly informed about the state of their body, taught about their potential diseases and health risks without the condescension and paternal obfuscation that they tended to receive from their more traditional doctors. In addition, as a midwife, Waterhouse never lost a single mother, a record not even approached by pre-sterilization hospitals where doctors wouldn’t even bother to rinse their hands between cases, dragging diseases from patient to patient with appalling disregard for the resulting mortality rates.
Through her practice as a physician and her interest in Spiritualism, Waterhouse was brought deeper into the public gender issues of her day, and it was therefore inevitable that she would sooner or later involve herself in the women’s suffrage movement. Beginning around 1870, she started writing letters to the Sacramento papers arguing for voting and economic rights, and composing pro-suffrage poetry for the leading feminist papers of the time while also painting pictures based on women’s rights themes.
And all the while, she maintained her practice through the most tumultuous years of Sacramento’s history. Her place of business was destroyed on one or two occasions by natural disaster, and survived the crazed and haphazard building spree that elevated the entire downtown by eighteen feet to avoid future destruction, whole buildings being hand-cranked upwards by teams of laborers while new earth and foundation was filled in beneath. The woman who had been thrown onto her own devices by disease and transplantation was, it turned out, unbreakable. Her reputation for providing clean and efficient medical service and honest, unvarnished advice during a time of unchecked frontier charlatanry kept the customers coming even when there was no building for them to come to.
Now, some of you might be raising a skeptical eye about Lavinia Waterhouse being included in a collection of Women in Science. “Water curing? That’s not medicine, that’s just frontier hornswoggling! What next, some stripe of mesmerist, perhaps?! Harrumph.” I hear and understand your harrumph, but Waterhouse is a crucial figure to know and understand for so many reasons. She was one of the front-line practitioners on the hazy cusp of modern medicine, trying to do as much good as she could within the social confines she was allowed, like thousands of others stumbling about the mid-19th Century trying to determine which way science would definitively break.
She made women’s health a public issue, and supported its progress by the fruit of her own business acumen, working just as hard at treating patients individually as she did at raising public awareness of women’s institutionally enforced self-ignorance. She highlights a cluster of beliefs and practices born of tragedy and oppression, held together by the need for community and some ultimate permanence, and that is something also good to keep in mind whenever we moderns scoffingly slide into Victorians Were Dumb, Effete, and Gullible mode. Her story illuminates her time.
She married again, perhaps to one of Sacramento’s most notorious frivolous lawsuit litigants ever. Or perhaps the man just had the same name. She didn’t keep him around long enough for anything more than his name to enter into permanent record. Her daughter, who had been her constant companion during the lean, hard, early years, died in childbirth at the hands of a traditional doctor, another notch of misery on the severely hacked rod of Waterhouse’s life. She saw women’s suffrage fail when it was brought to vote in 1879, and retired soon after that, living her remaining eleven years in relative obscurity in Monterey County, where she had acquired numerous tracts of land.
Upon her death in 1890, she bequeathed all her Pacific Grove property to the building of a retirement home for elderly women, a final act of consideration capping a life of hard scrabble frontier empathy and devotion.
You’ll not be surprised that there isn’t much written about Lavinia Waterhouse. I came across her almost entirely by accident in Cheryl Anne Stapp’s Disaster and Triumph: Sacramento Women, Gold Rush Through Civil War. It’s an interesting book generally, which works hard to track down the decaying threads of these women’s lives before they disappear forever. If it weren’t for this volume, we’d have nothing about her except a tombstone and a girl’s diary buried in the Sacramento archives, so grab one if you’re at all curious about how women navigated the odd, paradoxical world of the early West.