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Wild Women Of The West: Flora Hayward Stanford

Deadwood's First Female Doctor

November 26, 2019

The rough-and-tumble town of Deadwood, South Dakota, was home to a variety of notorious western characters in the mid-1800s.  Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane were just a few of the infamous names associated with the gold-mining camp.  These three legends of the West were at one time patients of the first woman doctor in the area, Doctor Flora Hayward Stanford.

Doctor Stanford opened a practice in Deadwood in 1888 and began seeing to the healthcare needs of hundreds of prospectors, prostitutes, business owners, and their families.  She entered the medical profession late in her life, receiving her degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1878, at the age of forty. Doctor Stanford established her first practice in Washington, D. C., where she lived with her husband, Valentine Stanford, and their two children, Emma and Victor.

Having a doctor for a wife upset Valentine’s traditional sense of family.  He did not agree with his wife’s work and considered it “unseemly for a woman to be a doctor.”

The Stanfords decided to separate after their daughter was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  Convinced the dry South Dakota climate would help restore Emma’s health. Doctor Stanford decided to move to Deadwood.  She left her marriage and her son behind in Pennsylvania.

According to historical records, Doctor Stanford was a well-respected physician and the only female doctor in Deadwood at the time.  She would travel to patients’ homes in a horse and buggy and administer treatment, often for little or no pay. Her standard fee was two to three dollars for an office visit and three to six dollars for a house call.  Given the town’s proclivity for violence, it wasn’t uncommon for Doctor Stanford to be called upon to patch up citizens involved in gunfights. In a letter to her son Victor, she described a particular brutal incident that left a lasting impression.  “A nameless man burst into the office badly shot up,” she wrote. “I removed three bullets from his body, dressed his wounds, and permitted him to leave via the rear door of my office,” she added. Moments after the man made his getaway, the county sheriff appeared at her door, inquiring after him.

Once the sheriff disclosed the notorious gunfighter’s identity to her, he took off after the injured man.  “On several occasions,” Doctor Stanford confessed to her son, “I had removed one bullet from a man, but this was the first time I had ever removed three at one time.”

In spite of the expert care Doctor Stanford lavished on her daughter.  Emma’s health did not improve. In hopes that a move further west would help her condition, Doctor Stanford closed her office and relocated to Southern California.  Emma’s condition continued to deteriorate however, and she died in 1893.

Grieving alone, Doctor Stanford returned to Deadwood the place she called home, and resumed her practice.  She simultaneously operated a second practice in Sundance, Wyoming, as well. The distance between Sundance and Deadwood was 50 miles, and Doctor Stanford traveled back and forth on horseback to tend to patients in both locations.

In 1897, he purchased a homestead on the Double D Ranch in Wyoming.  IN addition to maintaining her two medical practices, she was also now working her land.

The labor involved in keeping up with all three projects was overwhelming at times, and her health began to suffer from the effort.  On February 1, 1901, Doctor Stanford died of heart complications at age sixty-two. Funeral services were conducted at her graveside with her son Victor and many of her friends and patients in attendance.  A Deadwood Pioneer Times article, published shortly after her death, lamented the loss:

Notwithstanding that she was busied herself with her profession and domestic life, yet she has taken a lively interest in public affairs, she has been prominent in the work of the churches and societies, and her name has been associated in one way or another with almost every laudable enterprise in the city where her assistance was welcome.  She was for a number of years a member of the Board of Education of Deadwood, and in that capacity she rendered a valuable service… Tenderly the last offices were performed and the form of her who had been mother, friend, and medical advisor to numbers of struggling and benighted souls was lowered into the narrow home amid a flood of silent tears.

A plaque honoring her contributions hangs in the main reading room of Deadwood’s public library.

Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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