Betts, Helen L.

Teacher, Physician

Birth: September 6, 1845, Ohio
Death: February 21, 1910, Willows, Glenn County, California
Burial: Vienna Township Cemetery, Vienna, Trumbull County, Ohio
Find a Grave memorial

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 Biographies

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:

Xenophon 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.

From John C. Melnick, M.D., “A History of Medicine in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley: Dr. Helen Betts (1845-1907), Youngstown’s First Woman Doctor.” Bulletin of the Mahoning County Medical Society 42 (June 1972), p.163:

The Mahoning County Medical Society, founded in November, 1872, was only four months old when Dr. Helen Betts applied for membership. She was the pioneer woman doctor in Youngstown and most probably one of the first in the entire country. Dr. Betts practiced medicine in Youngstown for only a few years, and, therefore, not a great deal has been recorded concerning her activities.

Dr. Betts was born in Vienna, Ohio, Trumbull County, about 1845. She was the daughter of Reverend Zenophan and Jane Betts who settled Vienna, having come from Connecticut. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, lived here approximately 22 years. Dr Betts attended local schools as well as the “Academy” on the green. Following her graduation, she taught school for two or three years. It is not certain from which medical school she graduated.

She started the practice of medicine by sharing office space with Dr. Woodbridge in 1873 at the corners of Walnut and Federal Streets. At the meeting of the Medical Society on March 5, 1873, … The Society called to order by Dr. Brooke. Dr. McCurdy moved that Dr. Miss Betts be admitted as a member of the Society. The motion was ruled out of order and the question referred to the censors to be reported at the next regular meeting … Miss Dr. Betts was invited to remain during the evening. On July 2, 1873, Dr. Miss H. Betts was a member of the Society and gave her first paper to the Society on Quinine. She was to be a very active member and presented a number of interesting papers. She was invariably referred to as Miss Betts, Dr. Miss Betts, Miss Dr. Betts, and never as Dr. Betts.

After practicing here a few years, Dr. Betts showed some degree of restlessness for then she spent only a few years in a number of communities. After leaving Youngstown, she studied ophthalmology and otolaryngology in Europe for three years. She then returned to this country and practiced her specialties in Boston. It has been said she was a good surgeon and was successful in her practice. In 1900, because of failing health, she went to San Jose, California, and practiced there until 1907 when she died of an unknown illness. Dr. Betts’ body was cremated, according to her wishes, and scattered over her parents’ graves in Vienna.

Contributors: Shirley T. Wajda and Christine Novicky

Updated 5/09/2021
[1] Published in Transactions of the Gynaecological Society of Boston, Volume I (Boston: Published by Cupples & Hurd, 1889), pp. 119-132.
Photo source: Melnick, John C. A History of Medicine in Youngstown And Mahoning Valley, Ohio (Centennial Edition). Youngstown, Ohio: Melnick, 1973, p. 37.