Researcher Steve Robbins, great-great-nephew of the second wife of Cheston M. Sawtelle, has graciously shared with us his extensive research on Cheston and Cheston's first wife, the mysterious Mary Priscilla Avery Sawtelle, M.D.
We've been thinking about Mary since first learning that she was a student at the Willamette University Medical Department who was not permitted to graduate; whether this was due to her poor showing in anatomy or to her gender is a matter of some historical contention.
In an earlier post, we had speculated that perhaps Mary had run afoul of the Methodist ethic at WUMD, and Mr. Robbins informs us that Mary had come from Baptist stock (her father and step-father both having been preachers). Interestingly, C.M. Sawtelle was a well-known atheist who "lectured and wrote publicly against the Bible and Christianity." C.M. was granted his degree from WUMD, so it would seem that religion was not a likely factor in Mary's difficulty.
A tantalizing tidbit revealed by Robbins' research is Mary's first encounter with Judge Matthew P. Deady. Deady was one of the founding stockholders in the Oregon Medical College and a key player in early efforts to locate a medical school in Portland. He also presided over the divorce proceedings between Mary and her first husband, C.A. Huntley, in 1858 and granted sole custody of the couple's three children to C.A. Was Mary seen by some in the medical establishment as a divorcee and unfit mother?
Another potential source of conflict between Mary and her medical colleagues may be hinted at in an 1878 article that she wrote and published in the journal she herself edited, the Medico-Literary Journal. The paper, titled "The foul, contagious disease: a phase of the Chinese question: how Chinese women are infusing a poison into the Anglo-Saxon blood" sterotyped female Chinese immigrants as syphilitic prostitutes who were a danger to American men. While racial prejudices were certainly present to a degree among some members of Oregon medical community, inflammatory claims based on unsound science may have been more likely to arouse scorn and derision.
But can any of these things really explain why Mary ran afoul of the faculty at WUMD? Was it Mary herself who presented a problem, or was it truly a case of gender discrimination? If the latter, one would need to explain the aboutface in the policy for admission of women to the medical school that ocurred less than a decade after Mary's expulsion. If the former, one would need to reconcile Mary's inability to make it through anatomy class with her successful education at a different (albeit homeopathic) medical school, her successful attempt to launch and maintain a medical journal, and her ambitious (though short-lived) plan to open and run the Woman's Medical College of the Pacific Coast (in operation 1881 to 1883).
That's the fun of open questions in history: you can speculate wildly about the possible causes and effects of events and then go investigate more to support your crazy theories....