Wyoming Women of Note: Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson

Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson
Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson

Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson was the first woman doctor in Wyoming.

Lillian Heath attended Rawlins' first school and graduated among five students in the class of 1886. At age 16, while attending Rawlins High School, Lillian Heath also taught at Number Five Mine near Carbon and at Rawlins's elementary school. In Rawlins' early days, the town lacked medical practitioners. Dr. Thomas Maghee, a physician and friend of Heath's father, came to town regularly. Lillian became interested in medicine after hearing her father's stories about helping patients when Dr. Maghee was away. She began assisting Dr. Maghee, at first with obstetrical patients, then bullet wounds, amputations, and eventually in all types of cases. Rawlins was a small, gritty town and women, it is thought, avoided going out by themselves, especially at night. Making house calls at night was a dangerous business in those days. Her father and Dr. Maghee insisted that she wear men's clothing and carry a .32 caliber revolver in her jacket when she went to patients' homes. Lillian was described as a woman of fearless character, who had a strong passion for medicine and learning.

After working with Dr. Maghee for seven years, Lillian Heath decided to get a medical degree. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder for a year, then graduated from the Keokuk Medical College of Physicians and Surgeons in Keokuk, Iowa, at age 27, in March 1893. After graduating she returned to Rawlins to practice. In 189, at age 33, Dr. Heath married Lou Nelson, a former member of President William McKinley's honor guard who became a painter and decorator.

Dr. Lillian Heath Nelson

As an assistant to Dr. Maghee she helped perform thirty surgeries on a sheepherder who attempted suicide, leaving him with most of his face destroyed.

When Wyoming's notorious outlaw "Big Nose George" Parrott was killed in Rawlins in 1881, Dr. Maghee sawed off the top of Parrott's skull, in order to see whether some cranial attributes might account for his behaviors. During the procedure the surgeon passed the skull to their assistant, Lillian Heath, who kept it for many years and is said to have used it as a doorstop or flower pot. In an interview she said that she kept the skull as a memento of her training days. Several years later when a skeleton was discovered, Heath helped identify it as Parrott's by matching the skull cap she had kept to the remaining lower portion of the skull. She later gave the skull cap to the Union Pacific Historical Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The skull is on display at the Carbon County Museum in Rawlins.

In the fifteen years Dr. Heath practiced medicine as a licensed physician, she earned a reputation as a skilled obstetrician, and worked hard to overcome the obstacles that came with being the first woman physician in the state. Dr. Lillian Heath kept her license current for most of her adult life. She received several honors through the years for her work as Wyoming’s first female physician. Her’s is a remarkable story, and Wyoming is proud to celebrate her life and work as our state’s first female physician.

Wyoming Women of Note is a series to celebrate Wyoming Women's Suffrage. New highlights will be released each month of this year. Please visit our current featured women here!