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Book chronicles mercy and madness in the life of Spokane’s first female doctor

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Dr. Mary Archard Latham, Spokane’s first female doctor, quickly gained respect in the pioneering city after opening a practice in 1888.

Latham was a sought-after specialist, especially for childbirth and care for women with difficult pregnancies. She helped found the city’s first library and the Spokane Humane Society. She did philanthropy, wrote letters to the editor, advocated for others, and found homes for babies to adopt.

His influence is marked by a bust and tribute – “Physician, Essayist, Library Advocate” – among other sculptures of early Spokane leaders along Monroe Street in the former press building of The Spokesman-Review.

But Latham’s accolades seem to collide with later downfalls – property and legal entanglements, a nervous breakdown after the accidental death of a son, an arson conviction, and then an escape to rugged Idaho before his capture. She spent over a year at Walla Walla Penitentiary.

Now more about Latham’s life is covered in a new book, “Mercy and Madness: Dr. Mary Archard Latham’s Tragic Fall from Female Physician to Felon.” Beverly Lionberger Hodgins, author and Spokane resident, is interested in more than the story. She has family ties to Latham.

“Mary’s grandfather is my fourth great-grandfather on my family tree,” Hodgins, 72, said. Latham’s grandfather was John Archard, sometimes spelled Archerd. His first wife died, but they had a son who was Latham’s father. John Archard and a second wife had Hodgins’ third great-grandfather.

“Mary’s father and my third great-grandfather are half-brothers. Mary and I are distant cousins, but I can claim her.

Six years ago, Hodgins began uncovering historical records with Latham’s abundance of written words. Hodgins leads each chapter with something written by Latham. A clearer picture of the doctor emerged, she said, from the early years in Ohio to the tragedy later in life. Near the book’s submission, Hodgins landed a treasure.

“Perhaps a few months before the final manuscript was due, I finally received the complete file of everything related to Mary from the penitentiary.” This included Latham’s photo, entry card and letters at the time.

“A letter I particularly like is when she was on parole; she is very polite, writing to essentially ask permission to practice medicine again.

A different script tops the stationery, apparently from the director, “Tell her she can do it with pleasure.”

“He underlined ‘with pleasure,'” the author said. “I thought it revealed what he must think of Mary, even though she was a convicted felon in prison.”

And Latham’s photo became the book’s cover photo.

“When I opened the photo it filled my whole computer screen and I found myself saying ‘Hi Mary’ because of her eyes. Two old portraits are in the book, but this one, for a some reason, was beautiful. It felt like I was really seeing her for the first time.

Hodgins said Latham’s perseverance always showed, despite the tragedy, as did her expertise in health care, especially for women and children and especially the poor.

“Mary had several firsts as a woman during this time, and I think she had a lot of courage,” Hodgins said.

“I think Mary had an incredible brain. It’s apparent from her letters to the editor and her essays that she’s very educated, very insightful. She’s not afraid to speak her mind.

One of Latham’s sisters, Eliza Archard Conner, wrote for the Saturday Evening Post and was a suffragist. Their mother, Jane, mainly ran the farm and raised five daughters, “so they knew what a strong woman was”.

Latham’s story is definitive book material, said Jim Kershner, a journalist who wrote about the doctor for HistoryLink.org in 2015.

“This is one of the most compelling and tragic stories in Spokane history,” Kershner said. “It’s just a remarkable story because she was so respected. In the beginning, she was so pioneering and so critical of women’s health care at a time when there weren’t many female doctors, if any. .

“She was truly seen as a tremendous asset to the community, which makes her downfall particularly tragic. It happened in a very short time. »

Latham’s story is almost like a Greek tragedy, he said. “If you know the first half of the story, and that’s all you knew, you would think she would be a saint in Spokane history. But that second half of the story, you wouldn’t have never could predict that this is how the story would unfold.

In 1886, at age 42, Latham earned an medical degree from the Cincinnati College of Medicine and Surgery, a few years after her husband Edward had graduated from medical school. They had raised three sons and briefly practiced together in Ohio. But her “severe asthma” sent her west to Spokane with their sons. Edward stayed to close business.

He arrived in Spokane in 1889, shortly before the “great fire” destroyed most of downtown and Latham’s home, Hodgins said. Less than two years later, Edward went to the Colville reservation to become their doctor. They divorced about four years later.

Mary Latham maintained her medical practice, drawing on her skills whether patients lived in cabins by the river or in mansions in Browne’s Addition, Hodgins said.

“I learned how much Mary loved babies — delivering babies and finding homes for babies who needed them,” Hodgins said. “She ran the Spokane Home Finding Society almost from the time she arrived until she retired, and even then I don’t think she stopped.”

Hodgins also learned that Latham apparently performed abortions, then called “illegal operations”. Latham was cited as an advocate for doctors in a newspaper article.

“Mary stands up for other doctors, including obviously herself I think, brought into situations where a woman’s life is in danger because of a botched abortion, say, so they have to come in and save her life. of women,” Hodgins said.

“There was also a family rumor that Mary and her stepdaughter Emma Latham performed abortions together.”

Latham was charged in 1911 with performing abortions. She had had this felony charge before, shortly after prison, but she had been dropped. This time it was a 17-year-old delinquent girl who told police, Kershner wrote. His research revealed that the latter charges were dismissed when Latham agreed to “retire from active life”, i.e. medical practice. Authorities noted his poor health and “altered” mental state.

But Latham still helped others. In 1917, she agreed to take care of a 12-day-old child suffering from pneumonia. She contracted pneumonia and died on January 20, 1917, aged 72.

More than half of the book covers Latham’s milestones and contributions, said Hodgins, a member of Women Writing the West who has written short stories, poems and screenplays. The author moved with her husband from Oregon to Washington in 2006, then to Spokane in 2012.

“I wanted to understand Mary’s life. I wanted to know if she had really done what she had been condemned for.

For the arson charge, Latham was suspected of burning down a Mead store and pharmacy to keep it safe from another woman, apparently her son James’ former fiancé, who claimed the property was hers and won in court. It’s clear that in 1903, after her son James was killed in a train accident at work, Latham became unhinged, Hodgins said, but she’s still unconvinced of what she called condemnation. circumstantial.

“I’m not sure, because she was under the influence of people who apparently were trying to profit from their association with her,” Hodgins said. “You kind of have to read the trial chapter to understand.”

Hodgins learned that Latham had suffered a stroke shortly after her son’s death and that she wanted to kill herself.

The same Dr. Latham probably never returned after 1903, Kershner said. Her bad decisions and bizarre actions weren’t those of the same woman who, 10 years prior, was “a very strong, brilliant woman who had it all.”

Hodgins also saw this change, but mercy ultimately won out when it came to Latham’s legacy.

“Mary gave mercy and received mercy in the end,” Hodgins said. “She had moments of what some would say were insane, after the traumas she went through, but she persevered until the end. She never gave up.”