Wild Women Of The West: Dr. Lillian Heath


Blood gushed from fifty-three-year old sheepherder George Webb’s head as physician Thomas Maghee eased the man onto a hospital bed in his office in Rawlins, Wyoming.  Dr. Maghee’s assistant, Lillian Heath, covered the injured patient’s nose [what was left of it] and mouth with a chloroform soaked cloth, and within a few moments, Webb was unconscious.  Lillian helped Dr. Maghee peel layers of bandages and rags saturated with sanguine fluid from Webb’s neck and face.  The potentially fatal wound had been caused by a self-inflicted gunshot.  George Webb no longer wanted to live and, on November 2, 1886, had attempted suicide.  

According to the Colorado Medicine Journal, Webb had “placed a shotgun containing a charge of eighteen buckshot in each barrel on his body, pressed the muzzle under his chin, and fired one charge with his foot.”  When the gun fired, the concussion knocked him back a bit, and the ammunition had exploded in his face.

“The chin, lips, nose, anterior portions of the mandible and alveolar border of the superior maxilla, in fact everything from the pomum adami to the top of the nasal bone was destroyed,” the author of the story in the medical journal noted.  Webb’s suicide attempt took place on his ranch some thirty miles from Rawlins.  Friends transported him to Dr. Maghee’s office where Maghee, and aspiring physician Lillian Heath, cleaned and dressed the wound and prepared the injured man for surgery.  

Lillian had been Dr. Maghee’s intern for more than four years when Webb was brought to the office, and she’d learned a great deal about medicine during that time.  Working alongside Dr. Maghee, she’d helped deliver numerous babies, set broken bones, amputated legs, and fingers, stitched torn skin back together, and tended to those suffering from the flu and diphtheria.  Webb’s case gave her the opportunity to be a part of a groundbreaking medical procedure known as plastic surgery.  More than thirty surgeries would be necessary to rebuild Webb’s face and nose.

“Once the damaged sections of skin were cut away, the lower jaw bones were removed at the insertions of the second molar teeth,” the article in the medical journal read.  “The tissues of the cheeks on either side having been incised and loosened, a bridge was thrown across the gaping cavity.  The torn ends of the various muscles were then attached to the inferior side of the bridge, union taking place readily.”  Lillian and Dr. Maghee used sections from the patient’s forearms to replace the upper lip.  “The septum of the nose was restored from the balls of the thumbs,” the article explained, “and the balance of the organ from the small remaining portion of the ala nasi of the left side and from other parts of the hands.”

It took several months for Webb to make a complete recovery.  According to an interview done with Lillian in 1961, she provided continual care for Webb, feeding and bathing him and helping him to adjust to his reconstructed face.  Lillian believed he was resentful that his life had been saved, and he was often difficult to work with as a result.  She felt he was better looking after the surgery than before the injury occurred and was not shy about telling him so.  

Lillian Heath admitted she inherited her boldness from her father.  Born on December 29, 1865, in Burnett Junction, Wisconsin, to William and Calista Heath, her father worked for the Union Pacific /railroad as a painter but had a great interest in medicine.  Although he knew only the basics, he volunteered to help the railroad physician whenever he was needed.  Lillian grew up hearing exciting stories about her father’s medical adventures in Rawlins, Wyoming, where the family relocated in 1877.

Lillian realized at an early age she wanted to be a doctor.  Although her father was supportive of her desire, her mother believed it wasn’t right for women to study medicine.  Lillian was determined to pursue a career in the profession despite her mother’s objections.  She confessed in the interview done by Helen Hubert on file at the American Heritage Center in Wyoming that men were always more accepting of her becoming a doctor than women.  “Women were just as catty [about the idea] as they could be,” she recalled.  

About five years’ training under former army surgeon Thomas Maghee, she set off to attend the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa.  She graduated in 1893 along with twenty-two other classmates, only three of which were women.  Lillian’s field of expertise was obstetrics.  After completing her medical studies, she spent time focusing on childbirth and gynecology.  She enjoyed that area of care but admitted in an interview her specialty was anesthesiology.  While working with Dr. Maghee, she’d learned the proper anesthesia to use and how to administer it.  “Early on, the practice was to give patients a healthy dose of whiskey first,” she explained.  “Later chloroform and ether were used.  I could administer anesthetics without any ill effects.  I never had trouble.”  

While attending classes at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, she made the acquaintance of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.  Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and Lillian admired her efforts.  The encounter with the pioneer in the profession was brief, but it was one she would remember the rest of her life.  

Lillian returned to Rawlins once she graduated and opened a practice.  In the interview she did with historian Helen Hubert, Lillian shared she would travel thirty to forty miles away to call on patients.  Riding a reddish-yellow sorrel horse and carrying a revolver for protection, Dr. Heath would take care of those in need wherever they might be.  One of the patients she responded to that lived far from town was an elderly man suffering from an unknown ailment.  When Dr. Heath arrived, she was surprised to find the “sick” individual carrying on about his business on his ranch as though nothing at all was wrong with him.  Lillian examined the man and couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.  As the hour was too late to travel back to Rawlins with the specimen she’d collected from the patient, Lillian accepted his invitation for her to stay overnight.  During the evening, the doctor overheard a conversation the man had with one of his hired help.  The ranch hand inquired how his employer was feeling, and the man boasted he was in fine health.  The real reason he’d asked Lillian to visit was that he “wanted to see what a lady doctor looked like.”  

Not everyone was as excited to see a woman physician.  Practicing medicine in some locations was hazardous for ladies in the profession.  Those who thought it unseemly for a woman to be a doctor considered themselves justified in attacking her.  Lillian had spent a summer working at medical clinics in Denver and recalled how dangerous the job could be.  According to the doctor, if she had to be out after seven or eight o’clock at night, she would dress in men’s clothing.  She braided her long hair and tucked the braids under a man’s fur cap.  The disguise allowed her to make her way around unnoticed.  

Some of the male patients Lillian had during her apprenticeship with Dr. Maghee objected to her doing any more than taking their temperature.  She recalled one cowboy who insisted she not be consulted regarding a serious medical condition he was suffering.  The years spent on the back of a horse had created problems with his genitals.  It was determined he required surgery to correct the issue.  “He agreed to the operation but was adamant no women be allowed in the operating room,” Lillian recalled in an interview.  She administered the anesthesia that put the cowboy to sleep and was checking his vitals before Dr. Maghee moved his bed to the operating room.  She had promised the cowboy she wouldn’t be in the room during the procedure but would be the one to take care of him before the procedure.  While she was checking his heart and monitoring his breathing, the patient woke up.  “Who the hell are you?!” she remembered the cowboy asking.  The sudden way he came out of the anesthesia startled her.  She admitted to never being as frightened of any one thing as much in her life.  She managed to get the cowboy under again, and the operation proceeded without further incident.  

Lillian had difficulties with female patients, too.  One elderly woman in town frequently asked Dr. Heath to make house calls but had no intention of paying her.  The woman was a minister’s wife, and Lillian felt her behavior should have been better than the average person’s.  She only responded to the woman’s calls for help a handful of times.  Eventually, she refused to continue seeing her because the minister’s wife refused to compensate her for her services because she was a woman doctor.  

Lillian was a member of the Wyoming Medical Society and the Colorado State Medical Society.  She was one of only a few women registered with either organization.

Dr. Heath met her husband, former soldier, and interior decorator Lou J. Nelson, in Rawlins, and the two were married on October 24, 1898.  The couple lived in both Wyoming and Colorado.  Together they ran the Ben-Mar Hotel in Lamar, Colorado.  

Lillian retired from practicing medicine in 1909 but kept her license active throughout the rest of her life.

In mid-1950, Lillian made national news when the body of an Old West outlaw was discovered in a whiskey barrel coffin in Rawlins.  According to the May 13, 1950, edition of the News, “the discovery was made by workmen who were digging an excavation for a new downtown store building.  The barrel contained a number of bones, including a skull with the top sawed off.  

“A Rawlins pioneer recalled that Dr. Lillian Heath owned the top of Big Nose George’s skull.  The top had been given to her by Dr. John Osborne who dismembered the body in 1881.

“Big Nose George was George Manuse, alias George Parrott, who in 1880 attempted with a few accomplices to derail a Union Pacific train hauling a railroad pay car.  The plot was discovered, and the outlaws fled to Rattlesnake Canyon at the foot of Elk Mountain.

“Deputy Sheriff Bob Wooderfield of Rawlins was shot and killed when he came upon the outlaw’s hiding place.  Big Nose was captured and later sentence to be executed.  He was taken from the jail by four or five men and lynched.”  

At the age of eighty-nine, Lillian was invited to tour the Denver hospitals to observe the most modern medical techniques of the day.  The August 30, 1955, edition of The Daily Sentinel included an interview with Lillian about the trip to Colorado and all she would be doing.  

“Dr. Heath and her husband were surprised on their arrival at Denver’s Stapleton Airfield with a group of former Rawlins people on hand to greet them.  Other greeters included Denver’s two senior women medical practitioners, Dr. Ethel Fraser and Elise Pratt.

“Dr. Franklin Yoder, Wyoming State Health officer, joined the doctor and her husband at Cheyenne and accompanied them on the tour of Denver.  Officials at the Colorado State Medical Society took them for a brief drive around Denver Sunday before Dr. Heath and her husband retired.”  

*Dr. Lillian Heath passed away on Sunday, August 5, 1962.  She was ninety-seven years old.

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