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Betts, Helen L.

Schoolteacher, Physician
Birth: September 6, 1845

Death: February 21, 1910

The daughter of longtime Vienna Presbyterian Church minister Xenophon Betts, Helen L. Betts was born in 1845. With her sister Juliette A. Betts she worked as a teacher in Vienna’s schools and volunteered in the Vienna Soldiers' Aid Society during the American Civil War (1861-1865). She studied medicine with local physician Daniel B. Woods. In 1872, she graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the world’s first medical school for women which had opened in 1850.

Returning to Ohio, Dr. Betts opened a medical practice in Warren, and then a larger practice in Youngstown. She was the first female member of the Mahoning Valley Medical Society. By the 1880s she had moved to Boston and the prestigious New England Hospital for Women and Children, where she served as a throat and nose specialist. This hospital was the first in the United States to combine gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics under one roof, and was especially concerned with the health of poor and working-class women.

Dr. Betts published papers on pulmonary diseases, including tuberculosis, in children. In 1890, she was the first woman physician chosen to travel to Berlin, Germany, to investigate the discoveries of Professor Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch. Koch had isolated anthrax, cholera, and tuberculosis, an important discovery in proving the germ theory of disease and a great aid in preserving public health. For his work in tuberculosis he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905. He also developed modern laboratory techniques. Dr. Betts was sent to his laboratory by the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Despite her prestige in her work on children's pulmonary diseases, Dr. Betts was best known for her work on the relationship of women’s dress and women’s health. Indeed, she was called a “bright, brainy woman” for her 1887 article, “The Dress of Women: Its Relation to the Etiology and Treatment of Pelvic Disease.” [1] Where men could leap and run, women’s movements were restricted by their clothing. She argued that women carrying so much weight of their clothing on their waists affected their health. One patient wore the following everyday “indoor garments”:

… knit and muslin drawers, flannel and muslin underskirts, hoop-skirt, and bustle, then a muslin and a dress skirt, seven bands; fourteen thicknesses were buttoned closely about the corset. … I asked if her clothes were not oppressive. She said she thought she wore very light clothing, but had noticed at night a purple crease about the waist where the bands came about the corset, …. With all this weight and compression, this poor woman was waiting to get well, wondering why she could not stand, that her limbs ached and prickled, and why she could not walk without getting tired (p. 127).

Women could wear up to forty pounds of skirts suspended from her waist and hips. Fashionable visiting outfits so closed the armhole size that women could not raise the arms. Such restrictions not only affected women’s health, they were a symbol of women’s oppression. Using medical evidence, Helen L. Betts argued that such a practice needed to end.

Published Biography
From Harriet Taylor Upton, A Twentieth Century History of Trumbull County, Ohio: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People, and Its Principal Interests (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1909), Volume 1, pp. 594-595:

Xenaphon Betts and his wife Jane were among the later settlers of Vienna. Betts was a minister and served the Presbyterian church twenty-eight years. He was not only interest in his own township, but in the county’s educational and religious affairs. He had five children, the best known being Dr. Helen Betts, now a successful practicing physician in Boston. She was the first woman physician in Trumbull County, being a student of D. B. Woods. After she had taken her medical course and graduate, practiced for a little time in Warren, she went to Youngstown, and then to Boston. She made a place for herself in the profession, when that profession hardly tolerated women.

Contributor: Shirley T. Wajda

[1] Published in Transactions of the Gynaecological Society of Boston, Volume I (Boston: Published by Cupples & Hurd, 1889), pp. 119-132.

Helen Betts photo: Melnick, John C., A History of Medicine in Youngstown And Mahoning Valley, Ohio (Centennial Edition).  Youngstown, Ohio: Melnick, 1973. Print.