Although Montana midwives had a long history of working with doctors to serve the needs of women in their communities, their profession—and especially the idea of home birth—faded from mainstream acceptance as the hospital replaced the home as the “normal” birthing location. By the 1950s, a majority of women across the United States delivered their babies in hospitals. Even as hospital births became more common, midwives continued to assume that pregnancy and delivery were nonmedical events. Physicians, on the other hand, began to insist that medical assistance and access to technology were necessary for safe deliveries.
The conflict crystalized in 1988 when the Montana Board of Medical Examiners, at the request of a Missoula physician, pressed charges against a Montana midwife, Dolly Browder, and initiated a court case, accusing her of violating the Medical Practice Act by practicing medicine without a license.
After a three-day civil trial, the Missoula judge ruled against Browder. He concluded that she was practicing medicine and banned her from assisting pregnant women. The case concluded in January 1989, just as the Fifty-first session of the Montana legislature convened. With the looming threat of additional lawsuits, the Montana Midwifery Association hired a lobbyist, raised funds, and organized supporters. Their goal: To change the Montana Medical Practice Act to exempt home birth midwifery. Continue reading Legalized Midwifery: Montana Leads the Way→
Born in 1872 on the South Fork of the Sun River, Julia Ereaux was the daughter of a French immigrant, Lazare “Curley” Ereaux, and his A’a Ni Nin (White Clay—also known as Gros Ventre) wife, Pipe Woman. Julia, whose White Clay name was Sweet Pine, grew up in a bicultural family and was fluent in French, English, and Gros Ventre. She became a rancher and a newspaper correspondent, even as she served as a Fort Belknap tribal council member, promoted traditional indigenous arts, and worked to prevent the spread of tuberculosis on the reservation. A founding member of one of the first Indian women’s clubs in Montana, Schultz devoted her life to the well-being of the A’a Ni Nin people.
By the time Julia was born, her parents had already lost two children to a smallpox epidemic that took the lives of hundreds of American Indians in what is now north-central Montana. Along with several other mixed-heritage families, the Ereaux family settled near Augusta and took up farming. They were so poor, Julia later recalled, that her mother had to cut and thresh the grain by hand.
Julia received her schooling at St. Peter’s Mission School, an Indian boarding school in the Sun River Valley, which was attended by many Blackfeet and Métis children. Run by Ursuline nuns, the school also employed two famous Montanans during Julia’s years there: Mary Fields, a former slave who worked as handyman and gardener for the school and who became Montana’s first female postal carrier, and Louis Riel, one of the Métis leaders of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. Continue reading Julia Ereaux Schultz, Health Advocate and Cultural Champion→
Rose Gordon was born 1883 in White Sulphur Springs to a former slave and a black Scottish-born immigrant. Her commitment to service makes her life notable, while the grace and advocacy she showed in navigating the racist currents common to small-town Montana sheds light on the African American experience.
Rose’s father, John, came to Montana Territory by steamboat in 1881 to cook on the mining frontier; her mother, Mary, followed a year later. The family purchased a home in White Sulphur Springs, Meagher County, where John worked as a chef for the town’s primary hotel. At the time the family settled there, Meagher County was home to some forty-six hundred people, including thirty African Americans.
In the 1890s John Gordon was killed in a train accident, leaving Mary Gordon to support five children by cooking, doing laundry, and providing nursing care for area families. Despite the long hours she gave to helping her mother, Rose graduated from high school as valedictorian. Her graduation oration, “The Progress of the Negro Race,” ended with praise for the African American educator Booker T. Washington, and Rose’s life thereafter gave testimony to Washington’s emphasis on self-improvement, self-reliance, education, and non-confrontational relationships with white people.
Catholic sisters and Protestant deaconesses established and refined health care in Montana. These dedicated women brought better medical care to the sick and played important roles in the evolution of nursing in the state.
The first five Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kansas came by stagecoach to Helena in 1869. Within a year, they established St. John’s Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in the territory. These sisters were Montana’s first trained nurses.
The sisters began canvassing Montana’s remote camps on horseback, begging funds to establish a hospital in Deer Lodge. St. Joseph’s saw its first patients in 1873 and went on to serve Deer Lodge for ninety years. Among other acts of service, the sisters tended the wounded after the Battle of the Big Hole in 1877. They cared for casualties among both soldiers and Nez Perce at the battlefield before returning to Deer Lodge with their patients under terrible conditions; once at the hospital, the sisters found maggots infesting the combatants’ wounds.
Three more sisters traveled from Leavenworth in 1875 to Virginia City to open St. Mary’s Hospital. One of them, Sister Irene McGrath, was a young novice barely eighteen. By 1879, the mining camp had dwindled and patients were few. The sisters were never meant to be ornamental, and so they moved on. Continue reading Faith Inspired Early Health Care→