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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Orange had woman doctor a century ago

 

Last updated 2/28/2023 at 6:43pm

Dr. Karen Peterson Mitchell

An immigrant woman who moved to Orange in 1901 became one of the most respected citizens in town and set an example as a medical doctor in a world dominated by White men.

Dr. Karen Peterson Mitchell was one of the first women physicians licensed in Texas and like many prominent people in local history, moved here because of the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company. Her new husband at the time was offered a job as an engineer with the company, according to a story in the Las Sabinas Historical Journal written by Dr. Mitchell's daughter.

The story was printed in July 1976, the first year of the journal published by the Orange County Historical Society and told of the great adventures of the young daughter treating members of the infamous Dalton Gang and other outlaws hiding in the hills and mountains of Indian Territory, later Oklahoma.

Today, families would brag about a daughter working to become a physician. But in the Nineteenth Century, Mitchell's parents disowned her and left her to pay for her education herself.


"Karen's family were horrified and considered that she had disgraced them by choosing this profession," Marie, the daughter, wrote about her mother's admission to medical school. "As a result, her family refused to help her financially or recognize her socially."

Karen Inena Peterson was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 26, 1872. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was still a baby and moved to a Danish settlement in Iowa. The family bought a farm and worked it. But as a girl, Karen dreamed of becoming a medical doctor in the days when she was expected to become a wife and mother.


Her daughter wrote that Dr. Mitchell went to a one-room school. After graduating at the age of 18, she taught school in a log cabin for two years to save money for medical school.

Even after being admitted to medical school, the young Dr. Mitchell had to work to pay for her education. She took jobs like being a companion to the elderly and even housekeeping.

Her last year in med school, one of the members of the faculty let her live in his home and help take care of his blind wife, according to her daughter Marie. In addition to the room and board for work, Dr. Mitchell received a "bit of money" to pay for books and sometimes new clothing.

Dr. Mitchell attended the Iowa University medical school, starting in 1892. Her daughter wrote that as the only woman in the class, she became "an object of great curiosity and speculation."


In those days, medical students did not have hospital internships, but would often be assigned to learn skills from a practicing physician. Perhaps because men doctors did not want a woman, Dr. Mitchell found herself working with one from Iowa University who was in what is now Muskogee, Oklahoma.

At the time, it was U.S. Indian Territory and outlaws would hide. The Las Sabinas story reported stories Dr. Mitchell would tell about treating the outlaws, including members of the Dalton Gang, when they were shot or sick. The gang members were careful and didn't let the doctor drive herself in the fear that she might lead law officers to them.


Dr. Mitchell would have someone appear at her house in the dark to summon her if she was needed. She would get her horse and buggy, then the outlaw would blindfold her and drive her up to the hide-out.

If she stayed overnight, she had to wait again until the next night to return as they always traveled in the dark. Once again, she was blindfolded while someone drove her back home in her own horse and buggy.

Her daughter wrote that the outlaws appreciated Dr. Karen so much they gave her a pair of chestnut thoroughbred horses for her buggy.

A disaster, though, made the young doctor move to Texas. A fire destroyed the town of Muskogee in 1899 and Dr. Mitchell lost all her belongings, including her books and her gifted horses. She moved to Houston and set up a practice on the second floor of the Rice Building.


One of her patients was a young engineer from Austria. His birth name had been Alexander Loeffler, but Americans could not pronounce his name. He had it legally changed to Alexander Loeffler Mitchell. The doctor and patient fell in love and married in May 1900.

The couple moved to Orange in 1901 after Alexander Mitchell got a job with the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company. Dr. Mitchell set up a practice here and the community, even in those Victorian Days of sexual segregation, accepted her and she drew many patients.

Like many doctors at the time, some patients could not afford to pay her cash, but she didn't refuse to help. Her daughter wrote that Dr. Mitchell accepted chickens and produce for her services. The physician also made sure her patients were cared for in other ways besides medicine. She would often pack baskets of preserves and other foods, plus clean linens to take to patients.


Alexander Mitchell belonged to the Madison No. 126 Masonic Lodge, where he was a 32nd-degree Mason. Dr. Mitchell was an original member of the local Order of the Eastern Star Lodge. The Masonic Hall at that time was on Water Street, which went along the south and east bank of the Sabine River and was the address of the earliest fine homes in Orange, including the Lutcher mansion.

Patsy Phillips in a 2001 edition of Las Sabinas Historical Journal about the lodge that she learned Dr. Mitchell was "quite the character."

The members would have to walk, ride horses or buggies to the night meetings. At the time, the only street lights in Orange were on Front Street. In addition, the city did not have any livestock ordinances. Cows and other animals roamed the streets and sidewalks. Dr. Karen recalled stepping "in foreign matter" during those walks. The membership fee for the Eastern Star Lodge that first year was $1.50.

The Mitchell family joined St. Paul Episcopal Church and ended up living in a house at 410 15th Street, off Main. In those days, nearby Green Avenue ended at 15th Street.

Alexander Mitchell died in 1930 and was buried in Jett Cemetery. Dr. Mitchell continued her medical practice until her death. Even after learning she had terminal cancer, she continued to see patients at her home. She died on October 4, 1945, with her death making local headlines in the local daily newspaper. She died a few weeks before her 73rd birthday and left behind a colorful legacy.

 
 

Reader Comments(1)

mySw writes:

Dr. Mitchell delivered my mother who is named “Karen” after the doctor.

 
 
 

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