Book Review: Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman's Work

As the Holidays are approaching and everyone is looking for a special gift for the readers in their family, we asked one of our interpretive volunteers, Maureen Carlson to share with us what she is reading. Here is her review.


Pioneer Doctor: The Story of a Woman’s Work by Mari Graña is a book that I would recommend for anyone, especially women and girls. It is a colorful biography written like a story in the point of view of Doctor Mary “Mollie” Babcock Atwater, which I feel Graña was able to portray extremely well. I felt as if I were right next to Doctor Mollie the whole time. A pioneer feminist, Doctor Mollie attended medical school at the Women’s Hospital Medical College of Chicago where she graduated in 1887. As though she had an endless supply of energy, she constantly fought for people’s health, particularly women’s health and safety in childbirth and contraceptives, she fought tirelessly for women’s rights as a suffragist (about twenty years until women finally got the vote!), and when she surprisingly became pregnant in her forties, something she’d been careful about avoiding in order to keep her career as doctor, she fought to be the best mother she could and raise her daughter to be strong and fight for herself as well. She believed women to equal to men, not below or above, which really stood out to me. I believe feminism today has gone too far, beyond the definition itself, even to belittling men. I believe men and women to be equal but different, still having very important defining characteristics.

After being looked down upon for too long by her husband, Frank Moore, with whom she shared a doctor’s office (who also helped her through medical school) and her mother-in-law with whom they lived, Mollie left for Salt Lake City. The final straw was when she witnessed her mother-in-law, Sarah Moore, kick her beloved dog, Willy. With help from her good friend Rita, who gave her a $300 loan, Mollie was off, leaving Willy in the care of her friends Clara and Charles. While in Salt Lake, Mollie’s friend Edna helped her on her way to becoming the new doctor for a Montana mining camp. The owner’s wife was pregnant and insisted he hire Mollie, a woman, as opposed to a man, to be the new doctor as well as their family doctor for her own comfort. Mollie divorced Frank, a scandal to her high society family, and was able to finally get on with her career goals of opening her own practice. Mollie also brought awareness to the public about health problems, specifically tuberculosis. She was able to spread the word that tuberculosis was not a lost cause, as so many thought. She let the citizens know that, if caught early enough, they could be cured, so they should look for the signs and send the infected in before it became too late. Mollie, along with her suffragist friends also helped with the founding of a hospital to help those infected with tuberculosis. Doctor Mollie sadly had to back off of her career as a doctor when she became a mother, never able to have her own practice again. She switched all her effort to raising her only child, a daughter of hers and her devoted husband, Ben Atwater, she met in Montana. During WWI when the pandemic of the Spanish Flu hit, Mollie left her family for a short while as a volunteer doctor. While volunteering, she did not lose a single patient.

Mari Graña, the author of Pioneer Doctor, is the main character’s granddaughter. Graña was able to find a neighbor of her grandmother’s, Fanny, who told her stories that helped lead her in the creation of this fascinating book in honor of Doctor Mollie. Graña captures the life of her grandmother in the most beautiful way. She is a wonderful storyteller, and if I didn’t know who the author was, I may have guessed that her grandmother wrote the book herself. It is a wonderful book full of adventure, the successes and hardships of life as a woman pioneer and doctor in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and one of great love as well, written in a tasteful, modest manner. Doctor Mollie was an inspiration to all who knew her and still inspires many after death. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.