“It is not easy to be a pioneer – but oh, it is fascinating!”
Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work is a piece of historical fiction written by Mari Grana. It surrounds the life of Grana’s grandmother, Doctor Mollie Babcock Atwater, a doctor and former school teacher. Set in the late 1800’s, this narrative explores the early world of medicine, as well as the role of women in this developing, but male dominated, field. After graduating from the Woman’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago in 1887 and still being seen as her husband’s assistant in their medical practice, Dr. Mollie left Iowa looking for a new start. She ended up in the mines of the Montana frontier where she began her career as a professional female physician fighting to further advances in medicine, public health, and women’s rights. This novel’s mix of official records, interviews, and reconstructions is a historically accurate portrayal of the life of this extraordinary woman in the late nineteenth century. Pioneer Doctor truly captures an era of monumental advances in both science and women’s rights as one of the earliest female doctors dared to find her way in the Rocky Mountain West.
Mari Graña, the author of Pioneer Doctor, began her career in 1988 when she left her job as an urban planner in California. She moved to New Mexico to write, where she now works in Santa Fe as a freelance editor. In 2000, she won the Willa Cather award from Women Writing the West for her novel on the history of New Mexico, Begoso Cabin. Graña, the granddaughter of Mollie Babcock Atwater, published Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work in 2005. The piece of historical fiction serves as a tribute to the life of her grandmother, a woman who fought to advance both medicine and the place of women in society. Growing up, Graña was told exciting stories about the infamous Doctor Mollie. She and her brother would play with the doctor’s antiquated tools that they had found in their attic until she later on realized that these legends she had heard were, at least in part, true. Mollie Atwater was an important part of Montana from the late nineteenth century, when it was a new state full of gold seeking frontier settlements, until the Great Depression. Using historical accounts found in articles, books, and newspapers along with her family’s personal tales, Graña was able to compile this dramatized biography.
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were witness to incredible advances in the world of medicine. Many of the instruments, treatments, and practices being developed at the time are still used today. Germ theory was first developed in the 1880’s, aspirin was discovered in 1898, the x-ray machine was created in the 1890’s, and vaccines for illnesses like the flu, measles, and mumps were developed by the 1930’s. Medical knowledge was rapidly changing with these revolutionary developments that are now considered essential parts of our world. However, as seen in the novel Pioneer Doctor, many of these supplies and theories did not make it out to the western frontier until later. The west experienced severe technological lag due to their separation from the rest of society. The mines of Montana where Doctor Mollie Atwater worked didn’t receive x-ray machines or other new items until years after their creation. Due to this delay, they were still forced to operate using more antiquated practices.
Along with science, medicine, and technology, the roles of women women were witness to great advancements, albeit much more slowly. The world’s deep-rooted sexism didn’t stop women for pushing onward though, and many found ways to slowly begin breaking traditional barriers down. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician to be educated at an all male medical school, graduated with a medical degree in 1849. Women slowly began to follow in her footsteps as female medical schools were opened and they began to push their way into all educational establishments. Although they could earn medical degrees, women faced overwhelming challenges in actually finding work. Even as a fully certified and degreed physician, Doctor Atwater still had to work as an assistant to her husband because of society’s strict gender expectations. To escape these restrictions, Atwater left her husband and moved to the frontier where doctors were needed so badly that gender didn’t matter. It was there where she was finally able to establish her career as an independent woman and begin paving the way for future female scientists.
Unfortunately, Pioneer Doctor is a lesser known novel that has not been publically compared to other works of literature. Mari Graña, the author, is also not widely known, so the following connections discussed are personal associations made while reading.
Mollie Babcock Atwater can be compared to many other female doctors and professional women throughout history. The life of Atwater is reflected in those of women like Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Thompson, all of whom pursued careers as physicians in America during the 1800’s. In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from New York’s Geneva Medical College. She was the first woman to be trained in medicine at an exclusively male school, paving the way for others like Atwater to follow. By 1857, Blackwell had founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, around the time medical schools specifically for women began to open up. Doctor Blackwell and her colleagues later created a medical school in association with their infirmary in an effort to formally educate even more female physicians. Her efforts helped make Doctor Atwater’s future education and career possible.
Another prominent female physician of the time, Doctor Mary Thompson, an 1863 graduate of the New England Female Medical College, founded the Chicago Women’s Hospital and College in 1865. Atwater herself graduated from Thompson’s Women’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago in 1887. By educating female physicians and proving their capability, Thompson’s school was able to help convince the world to educate both male and female physicians. Blackwell and Thompson are just two of the many women who reflect the life, efforts, and accomplishments of Mollie Babcock Atwater. Their collective efforts helped earn female physicians the formal education and recognition they deserved. Atwater, Blackwell, and Thompson possessed the determination and drive necessary to succeed in such a difficult, male dominated field, and this attitude is what has allowed women to painstakingly carve out their places in both society and the professional world throughout time. Their collective, lasting impacts on equity in medicine are immeasurable.
The novel itself, Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work, can be compared at length to A’lelia Bundles’ On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. Both works serve as inspirational tributes to the professional lives of the authors’ grandmothers (in the case of Bundles, her great-great grandmother). Pioneer Doctor is a piece of historical fiction that is based on extensive research and fact, but is more of a story made up of dramatized dialogue than a professional biography. On Her Own Ground is strictly a biography, and any speculation about the missing pieces of Walker’s life are clearly noted as speculation by the author through the use of words like “maybe” or “possibly.” While the styles vary, the women and their stories have incredible parallels. Walker and Atwater were both forced to undergo similar obstacles and criticism due to the deeply rooted sexism of their times. While pursuing their careers in business and medicine, the women displayed great courage and determination in the face of a society that told them they were not enough; not smart enough, not capable enough, not good enough. Their lives served to break down these long-lasting barriers in order to allow future professional women to rise. Mari Graña and A’lelia Bundles exquisitely capture the progressive nature of the women that came before them in an attempt to make the stories of Madame Walker and Doctor Atwater known.
The majority of the reviews left for Pioneer Doctor were very positive in nature. Pioneer Doctor has been nationally recognized for its success, and was named a finalist for the 2006 West Willa Literary Awards for outstanding literature featuring women in the west. A source on the novel’s back cover claimed that Doctor Atwater’s “remarkable tale has been creatively retold by…award-winning author Mari Graña…Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, [it] is not just the biography of a fascinating woman. It is also the story of an era when daring women ventured forth and changed history for the rest of us” (Graña). In another review, a member of the Goodreads community wrote that “[Pioneer Doctor] is not a book for the ages. It is not a masterpiece. It is a very personal account of a remarkable woman… but [it is] engaging and worth reading…” (Goodreads.com). As seen in the previous remark, any complaints were largely about the writing and style of the novel, and less so about the actual story of Doctor Atwater and the novel’s themes of progress. This reflects an audience with a more progressive and accepting attitude toward the reading as a whole.
Despite the general consensus, the reviews were not unanimous, and some did leave very negative remarks. A different member of Goodreads wrote that “I wanted to like this book, but it lacked in many ways…The writing style was very pedestrian…some parts felt like they were pulled from a history book…As it was written…Mollie…comes across as arrogant and incredibly self-absorbed, not the woman she supposedly was” (Goodreads.com). While the majority seemed to enjoy the inspirational story of Doctor Atwater in Pioneer Doctor, clearly not everyone did. However, we found this novel to be very interesting and inspiring despite any issues with the style, and would recommend it to anyone interested in medicine, historic Western America, or female advancement.
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