Notable Oregonians: Bethenia Owens-Adair - Reformer, Doctor

Bethenia in dark dress and decorative hat
Bethenia Owens-Adair, 1840-1926. (Image courtesy OHSU Digital Commons)
Bethenia Owens was born to Tom and Sarah Damron Owens in Van Buren County, Missouri on February 8, 1840. She was the third of 11 children. Three years later, the family embarked on the Oregon Trail as part of what became known as "The Great Migration of 1843." The family settled first at Clatsop Plains before moving south to the Umpqua Valley.
Bethenia was 12 years old before she started her formal education. By the age of 14 she was married to one of her father's farmhands, Legrand Henderson Hill. She divorced Hill in 1859 and worked to support herself and her son, George, while also finishing her education.
In 1867 Owens-Adair opened a hat shop in Roseburg, which she successfully operated for six years. Leaving her son with noted women suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway, Owens-Adair attended medical school in Pennsylvania, earning a degree in 1874. She also received an M.D. in 1880 from the University of Michigan Medical School.
Returning to Oregon, Owens-Adair practiced medicine in Roseburg, Portland, and Clatsop County before practicing in Washington, where her son, George, was also a doctor. Over time, she specialized in treating women and children. She married Colonel John Adair in 1884. The marriage ended in divorce in 1907.
Owens-Adair was active in several reform movements. The negative effects of alcohol on her family led her to campaign for temperance. Blatant cultural and legal restrictions on women's rights caused her to fight for women suffrage as well as increased opportunities in education and employment.
Owens-Adair also crusaded for the eugenics movement, an outgrowth of evolution theory. She believed that criminality, insanity, and developmental disability were hereditary and that the "unfit" should be sterilized. Her 1922 book advocating sterilization received national attention. The next year, Oregon enacted a related law that created a State Board of Eugenics. The law was on the books until 1983. Over the decades, more than 2,500 people in Oregon’s prisons and mental health institutions received forced sterilizations as a result.
Owens-Adair retired from medicine at the age of 65 and continued her reform efforts. She died on September 11, 1926, at her home in Clatsop County.
(Sources: Oregon Encyclopedia | Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health)
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