top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Lavinia Waterhouse: Gold Rush Physician, Frontier Suffragette

Lavinia Waterhouse (1809–1890) lived at the intersection of a tangle of ideas that, to the twenty-first-century mind, have no business being together. She was a physician – practising 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 tended not to survive the technocratic crush of the modern age.

Lavinia Gertrude Goodyear was born in 1809 in New York, and of the first sixteen years of her life we know absolutely nothing. It was not until 1825, when both her parents died, that Lavinia stepped into history. Losing both parents simultaneously was a very nineteenth-century sort of occurrence that kicked off a string of supremely very nineteenth-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, practised 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 were reputed to magically cure all ailments. Disease, it was advertised, was impossible in the new state, so bring the children! 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 or caught 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 specialising 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 in the civilised East was spotty, and in the loose-and-fast West was virtually non-existent. So, to up and declare one’s self a practising physician was not, in that locale, madly eccentric, nor was the choice to specialise 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 did not: a commitment to women’s public health that did not balk before Victorian prudery.

Waterhouse made her office a centre where women could come to be honestly informed about the state of their body, and 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-sterilisation hospitals where doctors would not 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 18 feet to avoid future destruction – whole buildings being hand-cranked upwards by teams of labourers while new earth and foundation was filled in beneath. The woman who had been thrown on to 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 sceptical 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 permitted social confines, like thousands of others stumbling about the mid-nineteenth 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 embodies 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 did not keep him around long enough for anything more than his name to enter into the 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 will not be surprised that there is not 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 is an interesting book generally, which works hard to track down the decaying threads of these women’s lives before they disappear forever. If it were not for this volume, we would have nothing about her except a tombstone and a girl’s diary buried in the Sacramento archives, so grab one if you are at all curious about how women navigated the odd, paradoxical world of the early West.

And if you want to read more tales of great women physicians, check out my History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available from Amazon, and Pen and Sword US and UK.


bottom of page