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Ella Ford Robinson, Medicine Woman

Ella wasn’t the first woman doctor in Oregon, but she was likely the first in Jackson County, and perhaps in Southern Oregon.

Born in Oregon in 1856, Ella was the daughter of John Fulton Ford and his wife, Beda Anne Keizur.

After their 1842 marriage in Jackson County, Missouri, John and Beda joined with a May 1843 wagon train bound for Oregon Territory. Nine months later, they arrived and took a land claim in Marion County, near what would soon become the town of Salem.

Although never professionally trained, by the time she was 14 Beda was already fascinated with the study of medicine. Whenever she could find books written by medical professors or physicians she carefully studied them and absorbed their knowledge.

Living on the pioneer frontier, where doctors were few, she used her skills to comfort, treat and cure the sick who came to her. Some claimed she had even cured chronic diseases that “learned physicians” had pronounced “incurable.” To the residents of Salem she was Mrs. Dr. Ford.

Beda was the inspiration for her daughters Angie and Ella to become “the first young ladies who are courageous enough to take up the very difficult, but all-important study of medicine” in the medical school at Willamette University.

Ella’s father wouldn’t see his daughters enter the school. In 1874, at the annual pioneer reunion, he noted how few of the original pioneers were still alive. “They are passing one by one,” he said, “and soon I expect to be at rest with them.” A year later, in October 1875, he died of paralysis complications at age 56.

On June 14, 1877, “Wearing wreathes of roses and elegantly dressed,” Angie and Ella received their medical degrees and began working with their mother.

A fellow student, Dr. James Robinson, had headed south to Southern Oregon and opened a medical office with Dr. Lucius Danforth on California Street in Jacksonville.

During those classes in Salem, a romance had blossomed. James and his best man, Charles Nickell, editor of the Jacksonville Democratic Times, returned to Salem to marry Ella Ford in her mother’s home, Oct. 24, 1878.

The couple returned to Jacksonville and opened their medical offices in their new residence, the Judge Duncan house, on the hill across from the entrance to today’s Britt Gardens. (Later, the home would be known as the Judge Hiero Hanna House).

In their newspaper advertisements, James was “J.W. Robinson, M.D. Physician and Surgeon,” and Ella was “Mrs. Dr. Ella Ford Robinson. Diseases of Women a Specialty.”

Barely four months after their marriage, Ella was suddenly and “dangerously ill”; although, “hopes are entertained of her recovery.”

James telegraphed Ella’s mother, and she and daughter Angie rushed to a train and took the long journey from Salem to Jacksonville. The railroad wouldn’t reach Medford for another five years, and the end of the line was Roseburg. From there it was a dusty and rough stagecoach ride to Jacksonville.

When they arrived, Ella was still seriously ill, but her condition seemed to be improving. However, by May 1879, James announced he was closing his office “for a short time,” and was taking his wife to Salem for a change of climate, hoping to “completely restore her health.”

On Sunday, June 29, 1879, Mrs. Dr. Ella Josephine Ford Robinson, died. She was 22.

“Her untimely death,” said editor Nickell, “has cast a gloom that time alone can dispel.”

James was heartbroken. He closed his Jacksonville office and briefly returned to his parents. He began wandering in search of a new place to live and work; however, by the end of the year, he returned to Jacksonville.

In May 1882, he married again.

Ella’s mother died nine months after her daughter. Sister Angie prospered as a physician until her death in 1934, three years after Dr. James Robinson’s second wife died, and four years before James passed away.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.