Review of “As Long As Life”

As Long As Life
Mary Canaga Rowland, M.D.
Edited by F. A. Loomis
Storm Peak Press

Dr. Mary Rowland, whose book As Long As Life recounts a medical career in the West of the early 1900s, had more important matters to worry about than credit or competition. Dr. Rowland, who comes off as tougher than a platoon of Texas Rangers, had to battle for simple respect as a woman practitioner. Men often took one look at the long-skirted, bonneted Mary Rowland and concluded they knew more about doctoring than she did. She blazed trails of a kind different from Drs. McDowell and Beaumont's, toughing it out with skill, patience and stamina.

Rowland always had a no-nonsense way about her. The photographs show a strong, blocky woman with her jaw set in a don't-mess-with-me expression. When she zeroed in on a potential husband, she wrote him with characteristic directness, announcing that she "was ready to marry and if he was not interested there was a man nearer home I could love very easily." Her first choice, also a doctor, had the good sense to go along with the lady he always called "the new woman." When he was murdered, somewhat mysteriously, in his early 30s, Rowland moved her practice to another Kansas town and then to Idaho and Oregon, finally settling in Salem.

Her book is a shambling, loosely organized collection of anecdotes that sometimes shade into self-indulgence, but it's a one-of-a-kind story. She practiced under conditions of isolation and hardship almost unimaginable today. "When my husband-and I later-began to practice medicine in northwestern Kansas," she recalls, "we were about halfway between Kansas City and Denver where the nearest hospitals were, three or four hundred miles away. At times we sent patients to Kansas City . . . but for the most part we took care of them in homes or at our office, with no help except from family members. There were no dentists except the doctor or the barber." She treated one woman who hitched up a wagon team to carry her across a muddy morass and then promptly gave birth. She doctored gunfight victims and accepted livestock and potatoes as payment.

In that frontier world, she took everything in stride. "Fifteen miles southeast of Herndon," she writes matter-of-factly, "I took care of a man who had received a severe head injury. He . . . owned a large ranch. . . . His son worked for him and lived in the same house. His son had a wife and several children, but the older man's wife had died.

"The father had a habit of telling obscene stories while seated at the breakfast table. The son had warned him several times to desist, but the old fellow must have had a mean streak for he persisted. One morning the son became so exasperated that he picked the old man up and threw him out of the door. The wagon was standing in front of the house and his head struck the wheel and knocked him unconscious, tearing a great wound in his scalp. The son was so angry that he offered no aid. The old fellow lay there until four o'clock in the afternoon when he finally dragged himself to a neighbor who sent for me.

"When I arrived he began to quibble about who should pay for my services . . . [he] had bled so much that he could hardly sit in a chair. He finally decided that if I would take a cow in payment he would have me take care of him."

And the weather, in those days of house calls, could be a formidable foe. "One call I made, I remember very well. It was winter," Rowland recounts, "had been snowing all day, and the wind was drifting the snow into great mounds covering the roads. I had to go some fifteen miles from Herndon to see a man ill with typhoid fever. The sun was going down as I arrived at his home, which meant a night drive back to Herndon.

"All our roads had deep ruts and in the dark and drifted snow I was unable to see them. I was in terror all the way home for fear that the horses would get two wheels into a rut and two upon the bank, thus tipping the buggy over. It was late when I at last made my way to the barn. I was so exhausted that to lie down and die would have been relief. I got the harness off, fed the team, and went into the house to feed my baby."

There were moments, as she recalls, when one must have had to laugh. There was, for instance, the day when a young woman had visited Rowland's husband complaining of stomach pains. The doctor told her she was pregnant. The girl denied having had sex, then stammered, "No sir, no sir, we only tried it once and then just for a moment."

It is difficult to imagine Dr. Rowland herself breaking into a smile during such an exchange, or any other for that matter, but she may have yielded to a quick grin when a 10-year-old boy came to her with an injured finger, explaining, "I know'd yore a woman and you'd be careful."

Donald Dale Jackson is a writer based in rural Connecticut.

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