Saturday, January 12, 2019

Boise’s Dr. Mary E. Donaldson: Pioneer in Medicine and Elder Care [otd 01/12]

Dr. Donaldson. H. T. French photo.
Mary Elizabeth Donaldson, M.D., was born Mary Craker on January 12, 1851 in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, about forty miles northwest of Madison. After graduating from high school, she taught grade school for four years. She married at twenty and had a child who died young. The marriage didn’t work out and they were divorced soon afterwards.

In the mid-1870s, she turned to caring for a very sick brother, and they moved to Idaho in search of a more healthful climate. To support them during this period, Mary Elizabeth again found work as a teacher. Although the brother also contracted diphtheria, she succeeded in nursing him back to health.

In late 1878, Mary Elizabeth married Thomas L. Johnston, an early Idaho pioneer. Her efforts as a nurse strengthened her desire to take a more serious role in medicine. Mary's new husband supported that interest, and she enrolled in the University of Wooster, in Cleveland, Ohio. She received her M.D. degree in 1892, quite an accomplishment at a time when there were hardly any women physicians.

The Johnstons then moved to Oregon, where Dr. (then) Johnston established a sanitarium in Milton (8-10 miles south of Walla Walla, Washington). Her facility was a spa-like institution meant to prevent and cure disease through proper diet and exercise. Although its methods separated them somewhat from traditional medical practices, her approach proved very popular.

She followed that with a similar facility in Portland. The October 13, 1894 issue of The Oregonian newspaper carried a “voluntary testimonial” that praised the treatments available at the Portland Sanitarium. One of those who co-signed the statement was Abigail Scott Duniway, a well-known suffragette who ran a ranch in Idaho for a time [blog, July 29].

Johnston next extended her coverage to Boise, Idaho. An item in the Idaho Statesman (June 28, 1896) mentioned that a local architect had submitted plans for what came to be the Idaho Sanitarium. The facility opened in 1897 and proved to be even more popular than her units in Oregon.  In fact, her flourishing private practice allowed her to give free or reduced-rate services to those in need.
Idaho Sanitarium, H. T. French photo.

Unfortunately, Thomas Johnston died in September 1898. Mary Elizabeth stayed in Boise and in 1912 she married Captain Gilbert Donaldson, a well-known Boise businessman and philanthropist. Attendees at the ceremony included, in the words of historian H. T. French, “some of the most notable men and women of the state and many others whose names are household words in Idaho.”

In 1881, long before she became a doctor, Mary Elizabeth had occasion to travel in the East. In Philadelphia, she visited an institutional home for elderly men and women. With the backing of influential friends of her new husband, such an institution was built in Boise, and called the Donaldson Home for the Aged. It was one of the first, if not the first of its kind in Idaho.

In addition to those accomplishments, Dr. Donaldson found time to promote various service organizations, push the cause of prohibition, and raise five orphaned children. She also helped found and promote a national women’s rights organization, and regularly contributed articles to its publications.

Dr. Donaldson continued in active practice into the 1920s. In the early Thirties, the couple moved to California, where Gilbert died in 1934. Mary Elizabeth passed away in Napa, California in 1941.
References: [French], [Hawley]

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