Author brings to life an overlooked leader in Portland's history

Bubonic plague struck San Francisco in August 1907, and Portland and other Pacific ports feared they’d be hit next.

One month into her job as the nation’s first big-city female public health officer, Esther Pohl Lovejoy moved quickly.

Resisting calls to scapegoat Chinatown, Lovejoy enlisted the news media to expose rotting piles of garbage and open sewers at Portland waterfront businesses. She led a city crackdown forcing the use of enclosed garbage receptacles and screens to keep rats from stockpiles of wheat and other foodstuffs. And she enlisted professional rat catchers and offered residents a nickel bounty for every rat they brought in, dead or alive.

The plague did spread to Seattle that fall, but Portland was spared.

During Lovejoy’s tenure as a public health official here, Portland became the first city in the nation to conduct government inspections of meat markets — a year before the release of Upton Sinclair’s muckracking book “The Jungle” and passage of the Federal Food and Drugs Act.

Lovejoy went on to become a pivotal leader in the 1912 campaign that finally granted Oregon women the right to vote, after five failed ballot measures.

In 1920, she became the first woman to run for Congress in an Oregon general election. And for nearly five decades, Lovejoy was a pioneer in international medical aid, inspiring groups like Doctors Without Borders.

Now Lovejoy, relatively unknown in Oregon, is getting her due, with the release this month of Kim Jensen’s new biography, “Oregon’s Doctor to the World: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and a Life of Activism.”

Jensen, a history and gender studies professor at Western Oregon University, decided to write the biography after Oregon Health & Science University opened its historical archives about Lovejoy. Finishing the book took eight years of combing OHSU’s archives and others in London, P e of one of Portland’s most remarkable citizens, who rose to a leader of international stature and remained an activist until the age of 98.

Throughout her career, Lovejoy practiced what she called “constructive resistance” to battle “the interests,” Jensen says. A product of the Progressive Era in the first decade of the 20th century, she was a reformer until she died in 1967.

“Lovejoy’s life in activism moved from the local to the national to the transnational,” Jensen writes. “Lovejoy came to believe that international health, social justice and an end to war could only come from the work of women engaged in constructive resistance, above and across national boundaries.”

Skipping town

Lovejoy moved here at age 13, with her mother, who had spirited the two of them from Lovejoy’s abusive father in the Puget Sound lumber town of Seabeck.

Using savings stashed under nests in their henhouse, which Lovejoy later called a “nest egg if there ever was one,” her mother bought passage for two on a ship and then a train to Portland.

Despite her working class upbringing and little formal schooling, Lovejoy managed to enroll at the University of Oregon Medical Department, now known as Oregon Health & Science University.

Lovejoy paid her way by working as a clerk at a downtown department store, smuggling in “Gray’s Anatomy” to study during quiet spells at the store. One day she was caught by a supervisor, who was shocked to find a dead man’s bones, used for her studies, hidden under some women’s underwear.

Lovejoy would have been the first woman to graduate from the Portland medical school but wound up second, finishing in 1894, when money woes interrupted her studies.

Lovejoy got her first customer when a friend working for the telephone exchange eavesdropped on a telephone call, hearing a man fretting that he couldn’t find a doctor for his wife in labor.

Soon Lovejoy could be seen pedaling around Portland on her bicycle making house calls, carrying an obstetrical case.

She later graduated to a red Cadillac, and, Jensen says she was the only woman in Portland driving to work regularly in her own car.

Family life, tragedy

Lovejoy married fellow med student Emil Pohl shortly after she graduated. But he often left town to work, and sought his fortune in the Alaska gold rush.

Lovejoy mostly remained at home in Portland, and in 1901 bore her first and only child, Freddie.

Lovejoy networked with other women in the health care field. They understood that the health of children, families and cities were intertwined, and gravitated to the public health movement of the Progressive Era. She campaigned for children’s health, meat inspections and a crackdown on spitting in the streets as a way to counter tuberculosis.

Portland’s progressive mayor, Democrat Harry Lane, first appointed Lovejoy to the Portland Health Board in 1905, and hired her to work as city health officer in 1907.

In the middle of her two-year stint on that job, Freddie died, a tragedy blamed on tainted milk.

Lovejoy had been calling for a cleanup of the dairy industry in what was called a “war on bad milk.” Now the issue grew personal for her.

But in contrast to her success at winning business support for the anti-bubonic plague campaign, Lovejoy found Portland’s business interests indifferent, reluctant to take on the dairy industry.

Mothers cared deeply about feeding bad milk to their children, so Lovejoy worked with women’s organizations to press for change. In 1909, a year after her son died, she prevailed upon the City Council to pass a dairy inspection and licensing ordinance.

Suffrage movement

In 1906, Lovejoy and other younger professional women emerged as a new breed of activists fighting for women’s suffrage. They introduced new campaigning styles that stressed coalition-building and grassroots organizing. Jensen’s research for the book helped highlight the role of Lovejoy and others during this year’s celebration of the Oregon centennial of women’s suffrage.

When longtime Portland suffrage leader Abigail Scott Duniway became ill in 2012, Lovejoy took a leading role in what was Oregon’s sixth and final ballot measure for suffrage.

The prevailing suffrage groups required dues that made them off-limits to working-class members. Lovejoy organized Everybody’s Equal Suffrage League, which brought together men and women of all stripes.

Lovejoy also help introduce mass advertising techniques, which became a model for suffrage and other political campaigns around the nation. She organized the Suffrage Lunch Wagon, a flatbed truck filled with women who rode in the Portland Rose Festival parade.

“It was all spectacle and street performance ballyhoo,” Jensen writes, “that made for unequaled and unforgettable publicity.”

A little more than a year after Emil Pohl died in 1911, Lovejoy married Portland businessman George Lovejoy.

When World War I ravaged Europe and the United States entered the war, Lovejoy turned her attention overseas, trying to bring medical relief to French mothers and children. Ever the strong feminist, Lovejoy spoke out against men who advocated banning abortion and other measures designed to boost the French birth rate. Lovejoy understood why women who could not afford to feed their children were reluctant to bear more. And she began realizing how women were in many ways the biggest victims of war, suffering from rape, starvation and other deprivations.

Political ambition

Lovejoy came home in 1920, the same year the national suffrage amendment took effect, to run for Congress in the Portland-area House of Representatives district. Just four years earlier, Montanans had elected Jeannette Rankin as the first woman in Congress.

At a time when the post-Russian Revolution Red Scare had doused the pre-war reform fervor of the Progressive Era, Lovejoy ran as an unabashed progressive against conservative Republican incumbent Clifton “Pat” McArthur.

Lovejoy was charged with being a “Red” and siding the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. In a year of a national Republican tide, in a state then dominated by the GOP, Lovejoy won 44 percent of the vote.

After her loss, Lovejoy spent the rest of her years in New York City and overseas. She was called upon to lead the American Women’s Hospital nonprofit for one year, to resolve a bitter internal split, and wound up staying 48 years.

The group provided refugee assistance and other foreign assistance in 28 nations. She also became president of the Medical Women’s International Association.

Under Lovejoy’s leadership, the groups eschewed the idea of U.S. or European experts going abroad to provide direct aid. Rather, the organization and affiliated groups linked with women doctors and health practitioners in the affected countries, relying on their expertise to build programs.

“She believed that empowering people at a local level was the way to do that,” Jensen says. “She had worked for that locally in Portland.”

Despite her decades away, Lovejoy always considered Portland home, Jensen says. Her large cash donation to OHSU still provides scholarships there.

When she died in August 1967, Lovejoy was buried at Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery.

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