Louisa Mansfield Owsley,
Denton’s First Woman Homeopathic Doctor
Gerry Veeder, Ph.D.
When writing the biography of someone who died over a hundred years ago, who left no written records--, no diary, even one written with an eye for posterity, no letters to family or friends, no published statements, etc.—the historian must piece together a story from whatever scraps are available. Women can be especially shadowy figures, relegated to the designation “Wife of…..” Louisa, however, was such a strong individual that although two of the three written sources focus mainly on her husband, the power of her personality comes through, even, if only by inference. In addition to a few Federal Census records, the information on her comes from three published pieces, each written for a different purpose and each having a particular bias.
In 1906, a brief biography of her son, Alvin C. Owsley, was published in B.B. Paddock’s History & Biographical Record of North & West Texas. It appears to be one of those collections of pieces written with material provided by each individual, if not actually written by them. “Hon. Alvin Owsley” is a laudatory piece listing the distinguished accomplishment of a lawyer, legislator and local town leader. The first paragraph is a brief biography of his father, Henry, and mentions Louisa only as having survived her husband’s death, and her death date. Henry’s life is presented as being one of a dignified doctor, wounded Civil War veteran and a fitting father for a future legislator. While some basic facts are there, the omissions are filled in the other two family sources.
The second source is the biography of Alvin’s son, Alvin M Owsley. Again this seems to have been dictated to the author by Alvin, so it is very much his version of history. Near the beginning, four pages are devoted to Alvin’s memories of stories his grandfather, Henry told him as a child. They reflect the items that fascinated a young child enough to remember them 70-80 years later, and portray a grandfather who loved to tell an entertaining story to his grandson. Many of the stories are in sharp contrast to those in the official biography of his father, Alvin C, published 70 years earlier. By now, the family was established in Denton, both Alvin M and his father had distinguished careers behind, so perhaps he felt that colorful stories about his grandfather would be charming, rather than an embarrassment. Louisa is featured in several of Henry’s stories, and Alvin adds a few memories of her, but they seem more factual and less affectionate.
Finally, a 1957 newspaper story in the Denton Record Chronicle, entitled “Woman Doctor arrived in 1872” is based on an interview with Lou Owsley, Alvin M’s sister and, Louisa’s granddaughter. She recounts some of the same stories told by her brother, with a few additions. Lou’s tone is mater of fact, and describes a strong willed, if eccentric grandmother for whom she was named.
Dr. Louisa Mansfield Owsley is credited with being the first woman doctor in Denton, arriving in 1872. She practiced homeopathic medicine and was a skilled midwife, delivering over 4,000 babies in her 34 years here, more than any other doctor in the county. She was as well known for her strong opinions as for her medical skills. Her grandchildren agreed that she hated Yankees, disliked men and scorned allopathic medicine. Since her husband, Dr. Henry Owsley, was both a man and an allopath, their domestic life must have been interesting. Because so much of her life was entwined with his, he becomes a central character in her story, which is set against larger events: the California Gold Rush and the American Civil War, as well as the battle between two conflicting schools of medicine: the homeopaths, based on the theories of the German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, and the allopaths , conventional doctors who formed the American Medical Association to try to stamp out the homeopaths, who were a threat to their business.
Born Louisiana Ann Mansfield in 1832, in Christian, Kentucky to the Rev. James Wilkerson Mansfield and his wife Mildred Clarke, she was the eighth of eleven children. Both of her parents were from old Virginia families, so it may be assumed that they had some status in society and that she had some education. (“Louisa Ann Mansfield”, ancestory.com) At the age of seventeen, she married Dr. Henry Owsley on March 5, 1847 in Caldwell, KY. (‘Henry Owsley,”familysearch.org)
This seems like a match of social equals. Henry’s parents were also from Virginia, moving to Crab Orchard, KY, where he was born on Oct. 4, 1817, then to Johnson County, Missouri. Like most doctors of his time, Henry began his medical training as an apprentice with Dr. Hoff of Harrodsburg, MO, but unlike most, he then attended the newly opened Jacksonville Medical School, in Illinois, where he graduated in 1846.(“Hon. Alvin Owsley”, 1906, p.106) The fact that Henry was sent to a medical school out of state, indicates a family with both social & financial status.
California Gold Rush
Henry and Louisa married the year after his graduation, and their first son, Thomas Lee (called Lee by his parents) was born in 1848 in Warrensburg, Johnson Co. Missouri. However, instead of settling into a sedate medical practice, Henry decided to head for California to join the California Gold Rush, taking Louisa and Lee with him. He told his grandson, Alvin, that he and his older brother organized a wagon train of one hundred wagons to head for California. (Adams, 1971, p.4)
The trip was plagued by Indian attacks, illness, food shortages and bad weather. At one point, another wagon train joined them, its members starving and feverish. Henry recognized the signs of cholera. He attempted to treat his own people, but some died, along with the strangers and over one hundred were buried. They burned anything that might have been contaminated but were low on medicine and food.
Later, Louisa and Lee were both captured in a raid by hostile Indians, but nineteen year old Louisa so ably assisted the chief’s wife in childbirth and treated the rampant infection of pinkeye in the tribe with an herbal wash, that her grateful capturers returned her and her infant a week later. This suggests that Louisa already had some training as a midwife and herbalist, possibly learning from a relative or neighbor. Her ability as a skilled midwife later led her to call herself Dr. Owsley.
The Owsleys did reach the gold fields and after two years in the area around Sacramento, they left for home, “their pockets literally stuffed with [gold].”(Adams, 1971, p.5) For their return trip home, they decided to travel by boat, to Panama, probably to avoid the miseries of overland travel and more Indian raids.
The boat trip was scant improvement, with bad food and rationed water. They crossed the swampy Isthmus as best they could, camping out, looking for good water and sometimes finding boats to take them across rivers and lakes. An ocean boat took them to the Mississippi, and a river boat delivered them to St. Louis, where they hired a wagon to take them to Sedalia. Henry recalled the trip as a great adventure, but there is no record of what Louisa thought, as she coped with worry about disease and physical hardships as she cared for her toddler. (Adams, 1971, pp 4-5)
Missouri and The Civil War
Back in Johnson County in 1851, they settled on what Henry called their Plantation. It was indeed the largest piece of land in the township, valued at $31,000, almost five times as much as that of their neighbors. (U.S. Federal Census, 1860) His son Alvin’s biography says that Henry returning to Missouri “where he devoted his time and energies to professional services until 1861.” (“Hon. Alvin Owsley”, 1906, p. 106) Curiously, however, in the 1860 census, Henry gives his occupation as “Farmer” rather than “physician”. There was another physician nearby, so perhaps he preferred running the plantation to practicing medicine or considered farming to be his main occupation. He was 42. Louisa was 30, with four children: Thomas [Lee], Lou Ella, Albion [Alvin C.] and James. Besides the family, two young men in their late twenties, lived with them: A.J. Owsley , a “Day Laborer” and C.P Townsley, a 25 year old Attorney. Both may have been relatives.
In 1861, the beginning of Civil War, Henry joined the Confederate army as an assistant surgeon in Price’s Battalion. To protect his property, he gave Power of Attorney to “a friend”, possibly Mr. Townsley, who was to manage the place, and look after Louisa and the children. Whatever help the “friend” may or may not have provided, Louisa was certainly stuck with the day to day running of the house, garden and possibly more. A “mammy” slave looked after the smaller children. As the Union army moved closer, soldiers raided the farm for food and clothing. Louisa cleverly hid their money, in the form of gold coins, in five and ten gallon crocks and poured lard over the gold to disguise it. (Adams, 1971, pp. 5-6)
Although the frightening raids by Union soldiers to steal food, clothing and eventually burn down the house, were bad enough, it was the death of a young daughter that earned them Louisa’s lifelong enmity. Her granddaughter, Lou Owsley, recalled Louisa telling her that, “They knocked out a window of the house & the child, about 5, died of pneumonia.”(“Woman Doctor”,1957) Her grandson, Alvin M., remembered his grandfather telling a much more dramatic version in which the Union soldiers came looking for wagon sheeting that they knew Henry had given to his family. “The old mammy who cared for the children was holding Eunice, then two and a half, and she ran in terror, clutching the child. The captain raised his gun and shot, killing the mammy and wounding little Eunice in the shoulder. The soldiers searched the house and set fire to it Louisa hitched a mule to an old open job-wagon, put her family in it and set out for Knob Noster. They were unprotected from snow and sleet in the open wagon, and by the time they arrived the wounded little girl was ill. Pneumonia set in, and she died a few days later. (Adams, 1971, p. 6)
Henry seems to have conflated several events into one colorful story, with a few flourishes. Apparently Eunice did die of pneumonia, and later the house was burned. However, given her hatred of Yankees and men in general, it seems unlikely that Louisa would have forgiven them had they really shot the child. Considering her determination, however, one can picture her driving her family away from the burning house, lard covered crocks of money in the back of the wagon with the children, with or without a dramatic blizzard.
While Louisa and the children were staying elsewhere, the nameless friend with power of attorney sold the land, pocked the money and disappeared. Henry was discharged in 1863 because of an unspecified wound, and returned home to find house and land both gone.
The Traveling Medicine Show
Again, there are two versions of what happened next, Henry’s being the more interesting and probably mostly true. The sedate biography of his son simply states, “In 1863 he [Henry] started again to make the trip across the plains to the gold mines, this time accompanied by all his family.” (Hon. Alvin Owsley”,1906, p. 106) Henry told his grandson that during the war, he had created a potion he called “red medicine” that he used to treat pneumonia. With the plantation now gone, he used some of their remaining money to brew and bottle a large batch, bought a painted Wagon, then with a hired clown and a barker, he and the family, with their dog, set out with their traveling Medicine Show. They stopped in towns across Louisiana and Texas, where the clown and the dog would gather a crowd, and the barker sold the medicine. While they conducted the business, Henry played checkers with the locals. No mention of what Louisa and the children did or what life was like for her, cooking and washing out of the back of a wagon. He claimed the venture was so successful that they made enough money that after a year or two to travel to California, where his brother still lived. (Adams, 1971, p. 6) One can see why the Hon. Alvin C. Owsley might have glossed over the Medicine Show years when outlining his father’s life for his own biography.
Dr. Louisa Owsley, Homeopath, comes to Denton, Texas
After eight years in California, Henry decided he wanted to see Missouri again. “Your old grandfather never could stay in one place very long,” he explained to young Alvin.
On their way back to Missouri, the Owsleys stopped in Denton and decided to stay. Henry described its appeal as being “a clean little town” with trees, welcoming people, and the fact that, “a doctor can make a living anywhere.” He amended that with, “Two doctors. Your grandmother started right in bringing babies, and hasn’t stopped yet.”(Adams, 1971, p.6-7)
Denton offered Louisa a stability that she enjoyed, and one wondered if settling here was her idea. She became active in the Baptist Church, and a photograph of her shows an unsmiling woman in an elegant flowered hat, with an ostrich collar on her dress. She was now Dr. Louisa Owsley, specializing in deliveries and treating women and children, using homeopathic medicine, which she ordered from St. Louis. Her granddaughter, Lou, said that nobody knew how she learned homeopathy, “Maybe she read it in a book at home.” (“Woman Doctor”, 1957, p.11) Although this may have been intended as a dismissive remark—the grandchildren seemed to feel that it was just one more of her eccentricities--, it was likely true.
Homeopathy was a school of medicine developed in Germany around 1700, by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his discovery that a dose of quinine, the common medicine for malaria, produced malaria-like symptoms in a healthy person. He reasoned that a substance that could produce these symptoms could also cure them in a sick person. He eventually created his medicines by diluting substances, shaking the resulting solution briskly, then applying it to tiny pellets of milk sugar, an inert agent. Remarkably, the medicines often worked well on both acute and chronic illnesses. This was an era when doctors practiced blood-letting, and the medicines they used—strong purgatives, emetics, mercury, opium—made patients sicker, sometimes fatally so. Understandably, Hahnemann’s approach attracted followers and notable patients. Homeopathic medicines were used to successfully treat epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, typhoid and more in both Europe and the U.S. the 1800s.(Ullman,1991, pp33-44)
One of his followers, Dr. Constantine Hering, came to America, establishing a Homeopathic medical school in Pennsylvania in 1840. (Ullman, 1991, p.16) As in Europe, these doctors were popular, especially with women, who were the family care providers. Instead of having to physically force vile tasting medicines down them, children readily took the pellets.
Although the theory of Homeopathic medicine is quite sophisticated and complex, parts of it were simple enough for ordinary people to understand. For people who did not live in cities where homeopathic physicians were more easily available, homeopathic home health manuals were written, encouraging home prescribing for acute illnesses—coughs, mumps, earaches, etc.. Companion medicine kits contained most of the medicines listed in the book. The books, often called Handbooks for Domestic Practice, listed general maladies, specific symptoms and the homeopathic medicine to be used. Louisa likely possessed such a book, which prompted her granddaughter to make the off-hand reference to it.
The St. Louis connection is a link to Dr. Herman Luyties, a German homeopath who opened his practice there in 1840. In 1853, he began producing medicine kits and was the only source west of the Mississippi.. The Homeopathic Medical College of Missouri was opened in 1857 and Luyties Pharmaceutical Company became a leading producer of homeopathic medicines in the country. Dr. Luyties developed “combination tablets” made up for specific illnesses, like “Indigestion” “Headache”, etc. using several of the most commonly prescribed medicines for this. These were for his patients who were traveling or lived too far for him to reach quickly (“Herman. F.G. Luyties”, accessgeneaology.com).Given her family responsibilities, it is unlikely that Louisa attended the medical college, but at some point, she must have tried the medicines, found them easy and effective to use and became a believer.
By the time she set up her practice in Denton, she had nothing but contempt for allopathic (conventional) physicians, like her husband. When asked if the two ever practiced medicine together, Lou Owsley said, ”Grandma wouldn’t doctor with Grampa. She believed in giving sugar pills to make people feel good. He believed in giving old bitter medicine. She would let him hitch up her horse, though, when she went on calls.” (“Woman Doctor”, 1957, p.11)
Public Health, Doctors and Medicine in Denton, c. 1880
Sanitation in the city was poor. The city sewer system was not installed until 1910, and the outhouses often contaminated the water sources, leading to cases of typhoid. Scarlet fever, pneumonia, malaria, and smallpox were also common.
The Denton Business Directory of 1890 lists seven doctors in the city. Two of them Dr. Baldwin and Dr. Blount operated drug stores on the Square, selling drugs, chemicals and patient medicines. (Denton Business Review, 1890, p.12) While some doctors had gone to medical school, a number of Denton County doctors were “Horse and Buggy” doctors, who still used primitive treatments. A common treatment for pneumonia was to pour hot tallow on the chest or cover the back and chest with hot greasy rags. Quinine was widely used, sometimes in cold coffee with turpentine and sugar. Malaria was treated with quinine in whiskey. Dr. Baldwin advertised “Blackberry Cordial” made in his store. Herbs such as Sea Onions, for coughs and bronchitis, and Golden Seal, for skin problems, Horehound cooked with sugar into a syrup for whooping coughs were common medicines. More dangerous was Dover’s Powder, an addictive form of opium that was prescribed by doctors for fever and dysentery. (“Denton County Doctoring,” 1967, p. 3)
In 1892, the price of house calls ranged from 50 cents to a dollar, $2.50 for all day and $10 for delivering a baby, no matter how long that took. Doctors were often not paid in cash, but in food—beef, peaches, corn, etc.—as well as in hay for their horses and in wood. A local blacksmith got credit on his bill for shoeing a doctor’s horses (“Denton County Doctoring”, 1967, p. 3)
Perhaps because Louisa treated only women and children with her homeopathic remedies, the local doctors did not see her as a threat to their business. However, her success seems to have been known, because a desperate John Van, sleepless and frantic from a week-long earache, pounded on her door one night and begged her to help him. Perhaps because it was night and he was persistent, she broke her rule of not treating men. The family remembers that she poured warm oil in his ear and probably gave him some homeopathic medicine. He fell asleep on the carpet in the living room, and became remembered as Louisa’s only male patient. (“Woman Doctor”, 1957, p.11.)
Henry retired from practicing medicine, but he maintained his interest in patent medicines, the competition to his own “red medicine.” One day he came home with yet another bottle and announced that he’d try it to see what it did. Louisa warned him not to, but he was curious. Five days later, he was dead. The family story is that the medicine killed him, although at the age of 85, there could have been other, less dramatic, causes.
(Adams, 1971, p. 7)
Louisa continued delivering babies and practicing homeopathic medicine for another five years. She died one night in a bad storm, probably on her way to a delivery, when her pony cart was swept off the bridge. She and the horse both drowned. She was 75. (Adams, 1971, p. 7)
From the stories her grandchildren tell about her, they seemed to regard her as eccentric, noted for what she did not like—Yankees, men and allopathic doctors-- and dismissed her homeopathy as “little sugar pills”, apparently having more respect for their grandfather’s Red Medicine.
However, a reference to her in another biography gives us some insight on her as both a doctor and a person. In 1875, she was called out on a snowy, cold night to assist an unmarried teenager, the daughter of slaves, with the birth of her baby. The father had deserted her months earlier. The baby was a boy, and Louisa suggested that Janie Goodall name him after Fredrick Douglas, after the great African-American leader. Like his namesake, Fred Moore grew up to be a leader in the Denton African-American community.(Cochran, dentonhistory.net)
Although Louisa may have called herself Dr. Louisa Owsley, her family had the last word on her status. Both she and Henry are buried in the Denton IOOF Cemetery in a family plot. The “Owsley” large plot marker features Henry’s name—Dr. Henry Owsley—, his dates and some laudatory lines. But this is the only name on the monument. Henry also has a small headstone,” Dr. H. Owsley”. But Louisa’s small headstone simply says, “Mrs. L. Owsley”.
1860 United States Federal Census
Adams, Marion, Alvin M. Owsley of Texas (Texas Press, Waco, TX, 1971. pp4-7
Cochran, Mike, “Fred Moore”, http://www.dentonhistory.net/page32/page1/
Denton Business Review and Directory1890. The Portal to Texas History,
“Denton County Doctoring Was Different Around 1890” Denton Record Chronicle, Nov. 23, 1967, Sec. 3, p. 3.
Henry Owsley b. 4 OCT 1817 Frankfort, Franklin, Kentucky”
Herman C.G. Luyties, www.accessgenealogy.com/scripts/data/database.cgi?ArticleID...
“Hon. Alvin C. Owsley”, B.B. Paddock, ed. History and Biographical Record of North and West Texas (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, Vol. II) pp. 106-108
“Louisa Ann Mansfield b. 21 APR 1832 Christian Kentucky” The Limbs and Branches of the Smith Family Tree, http://worldconnect.geneology.rootsweb.ancestry.com
Ullman, Dana, Discovering Homeopathy, Rev. ed. (North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA,
“Woman Doctor Arrived in 1872”, Denton Record Chronicle, Feb.3, 1957, sec. 4, p.11.
* Portrait of Louisa Owsley, Photograph, n.d.; digital image, (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth12316/ : accessed August 17, 2013), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Denton Public Library, Denton, Texas.