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Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson





Year of Birth / Death

1865 - 1962


Medical School

Keokuk Medical College of Physicians and Surgeons


Geography

LOCATION
Wyoming


Career Path

Obstetrics and gynecology
Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson



Milestones

YEAR
1893
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Lillian Heath was the first woman to practice medicine in Wyoming and one of the first women to practice medicine west of the Mississippi River.


Biography

Dr. Lillian Heath was the first woman doctor in Wyoming, at a time when making house calls at night was a dangerous business. She was a fearless character, dressing in men's clothes and carrying a gun when she went out alone to protect herself. She apparently kept a piece of the skull from the autopsy of outlaw "Big Nose George" as a souvenir.

Lillian Heath was born December 29, 1865, in Burnett Junction, Wisconsin, to William and Calista Hunter Heath. Her father's wanderlust moved the family from Fondulac, Wisconsin, to Aplington, Iowa, and finally, in 1873, to Laramie, Wyoming. Soon after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Mr. Heath became a baggage handler for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1877 they moved once more, to Rawlins, Wyoming, where he became a locomotive painter.

Lillian Heath attended Rawlins's first school and graduated among five students in its class of 1886.At age 16, while attending Rawlins High School, Lillian Heath also taught at Number Five Mine near Carbon and at Rawlins's elementary school.

In Rawlins's early days, there were no medical practitioners. Dr. Thomas Maghee, however, a physician and friend of Heath's father, came to town regularly. Lillian Heath became interested in medicine after hearing her father's stories about helping patients when Dr. Maghee was away. She began assisting Dr. Maghee, at first with obstetrical patients, then bullet wounds, amputations, and eventually in all types of cases. Rawlins was a small, tough town and women avoided going out alone, especially at night. When she went calling on patients, both her father and Dr. Maghee insisted that she wear men's clothing and carry a .32 caliber revolver in her jacket.

One patient was a sheepherder who, attempting suicide, shot himself in the chin and destroyed most of his face. Dr. Maghee reconstructed the man's face over thirty surgeries, with Heath administering chloroform for anesthesia. Dr. Maghee and Lillian Heath fashioned a new nose for him, using a keystone of skin from his forehead.

When Wyoming's notorious outlaw "Big Nose George" Parrott was shot to death in Rawlins in 1881, Dr. Maghee and Rawlins's second physician, a Dr. Osborne, sawed off the top of Parrott's skull, in order to see whether some cranial attributes might account for his criminal behavior. The surgeons passed the bullet-riddled skull to their young assistant, Lillian Heath, who kept it for many years and is said to have used it as a doorstop. Some seventy years later, when a skeleton was discovered in a barrel under Osborne's house in 1950, Heath helped identify it as Parrott's by matching the skull cap she had kept to the remaining lower portion of the skull. She later gave the skull cap to the Union Pacific Historical Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The skull is on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins.

After working with Dr. Maghee for seven years, Lillian Heath decided to get a medical degree. She enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year, then graduated from the Keokuk Medical College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa, at age 27, in March 1893. After graduating she returned to Rawlins to practice.

In 1898, at age 33, Dr. Heath married Lou Nelson, a former member of President William McKinley's honor guard who became a painter and decorator. The couple ran a hotel for a few years in Colorado before returning to Rawlins in 1911. In the fifteen years Dr. Heath practiced medicine as a licensed physician, she earned a reputation as a skilled obstetrician and a remarkable character. Her story of life as a frontier physician is very proudly celebrated in the state of Wyoming.


National Library of Medicine