DR. MABEL SEAGRAVE wasn’t rattled by the gruesome battlefield wounds she saw in France in the long, cruel summer of 1918. Her surgical skills and bedside manner impressed everyone. In the months to come, however, Madame la doctoresse admitted to being overwhelmed at times by a deluge of refugees suffering from the deadly “Spanish flu.” The highly contagious respiratory virus ravaged the immune systems of young soldiers in the trenches and thousands of undernourished civilians fleeing the fighting.
At great peril of becoming ill herself, Dr. Seagrave stayed on after the Nov. 11 armistice to work at a Red Cross hospital. Awarded the silver Médaille d’honneur as a token of France’s gratitude, she had “labored as a superwoman to check the plague and relieve suffering,” another volunteer said. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, presented Seagrave the group’s Merit of Honor award, saying the Seattle doctor had demonstrated that strength, courage and patriotism were not just male attributes.
War hero, influential surgeon, lecturer and raconteur, Seagrave would qualify as remarkable in any era. In hers, she was extraordinary. She was one of the first Seattle women to attend elite Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After graduating from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1911, she spent 18 months as the house physician at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children before returning to Seattle.
Seagrave loved fun, fast horses and adventure — and performing showstopping impersonations of Teddy Roosevelt and Benito Mussolini at the “Stunt Nights” staged by the Women’s University Club of Seattle in the 1920s.
WORLD WAR I was at its apex when Dr. Seagrave and her Wellesley chum, Florence Denny Heliker, were sent to France by the National American Woman Suffrage Association to staff a refugee hospital. Both were ardent suffragists. Heliker was a granddaughter of Seattle pioneer Arthur A. Denny, an early champion of gender equality.
Donning khaki uniforms, Seagrave and Heliker rejected Victorian gender norms of fainthearted femininity. “All the male members of my family who could serve their country in the Revolutionary and Civil wars did so,” Seagrave told a reporter as she and Heliker boarded a troop ship. “As there were few men in my family able to enlist in this war, it was plainly up to me to ‘carry on.’ ”
The head of the suffrage association’s overseas hospital unit, Dr. Caroline Finley, told a reporter that the female doctors and nurses were doing “a fine thing for suffrage.” Seagrave also jumped at the chance to enhance her skills in a battlefield setting. Surgeons would be confronted with “unusual wounds” and split-second decisions, she enthused.
The Women’s Oversea Hospitals, U.S.A., which sent 78 female physicians to Europe during the war, saved countless lives, Seagrave told The Seattle Daily Times when she arrived back home in 1919. “Not a man in the outfit,” she said of the hospital where she and Heliker worked 18-hour days. “Indeed, we scarcely saw men at all at first. All the French males were at war, save a few tottering graybeards. We had to do all our own heavy work … including making coffins. Our plumber was a former New York actress. Our carpenter was just out of a fashionable girl’s school. Our chauffeurs were all girls.”
Like Seagrave and Heliker, many of the women had attended prestigious women’s liberal arts colleges that challenged graduates to make a difference in the world. At Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar, sisterhood was steeped in idealism.
On arrival in France, they were temporarily pressed into service at a battlefield “evacuation” hospital where 12-stretcher ambulances were arriving hourly. Then, at an overwhelmed refugee hospital near Labouheyre in southern France, they discovered there were only two other physicians. Moaning, feverish people were dying, literally left and right. Seagrave also traveled 40 miles twice a week to oversee village clinics.
The Red Cross field hospital where they volunteered after the armistice was in an overrun town called Foug in northeastern France — the Western Front during the war. The shooting had ended, but typhoid and dysentery were rampant, and the flu was more deadly than war. More American Doughboys died from diseases, primarily the flu, than were killed in combat. The virus would claim at least 50 million victims worldwide — some say twice that.
No one who knew Seagrave was surprised by the courage and determination she demonstrated in France. She left a successful medical practice in downtown Seattle to volunteer for the overseas hospital. Public service was the hallmark of her medical career. She always said her goal in life was to live by Wellesley’s motto, Non Ministrari sed Ministrare: “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
MABEL ALEXANDRIA SEAGRAVE was born in Cheyenne, the cattle-town capital of Wyoming, in 1882. Her father, Arthur, was a construction engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. After a stint as a Wells Fargo agent in Portland, he arrived in Seattle in 1885 and dabbled in real estate. The following year, Mabel’s mother, Selina Seagrave, died of an illness, only 38 years old. Mabel was motherless at the vulnerable age of 4 but gained a stepmother two years later, when her father married a Seattle woman, Sarah Chatham.
Shortly after Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889, Mabel’s father built the Seagrave Hotel, followed by a bigger and better one near Pioneer Square. It was the fourth Seattle hotel named the Occidental. The Seagraves lived in the five-story hotel throughout Mabel’s childhood. She was an inquisitive girl who loved talking with hotel guests from far-flung places.
Mabel spent her grade-school years at Denny School, an impressive new two-story building that opened in 1884 on Battery Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Belltown. She was an exceptional student, excelling in math, biology and chemistry. She loved acting in school plays.
In 1900, at the outset of her senior year at Seattle High School, Seagrave’s skill as a horsewoman was reported in a newspaper feature on the growth of the Seattle Riding Club. She was co-valedictorian of the 65-member Seattle High School Class of 1901. Her address on the role of 20th-century women was warmly applauded by a standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 at the city’s Grand Opera House.
When an illness claimed her stepmother in 1903, Seagrave withdrew from Wellesley for a semester to return to Seattle and comfort her father. She was back on campus in the fall of 1904 and an enthusiastic member of the Republican Club, boosting the candidacy of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was handily reelected. Seagrave’s impersonation of the “Rough Rider,” complete with bushy mustache and nose-pinching pince-nez spectacles, would delight friends for decades.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM Wellesley in 1905, Seagrave taught math at Seattle’s new high school on Broadway for two years before matriculating at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1907. In order to meet the Baltimore school’s stringent entrance requirements, she took an intensive physics laboratory course at the University of Washington.
A pioneer in clinical training, Johns Hopkins was also a gender-equality pioneer. Seagrave was one of seven women in Hopkins’ 89-member Class of 1911.
Female physicians in her era stuck together. Seagrave wrote her father in 1910 that the female physicians of New York offered her $1,000 as an inducement to locate in Manhattan after she received her medical degree and studied abroad.
Though she loved the work, after 18 months at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, Seagrave headed home to rapidly growing Seattle. She was impressed that Washington women had won the right to vote two years earlier, in 1910.
Seagrave was warmly welcomed by Seattle’s established female physicians. After arriving in Seattle, she became a member of the Medical Women’s Club, which had been organized in 1906.
SEAGRAVE WAS KNOWN as “Dr. Mabel” to her friends. Her patients, especially children, loved her gentle, reassuring smile. To have “a little chat with her was to get a sunnier slant on life,” the King County Medical Bulletin wrote.
After returning from France, she volunteered with the Children’s Welfare Division of the Seattle Health Department, overseeing dental clinics for underprivileged children. Her Wellesley and Soroptimist Club friend, Heliker, was now a probation officer with the county Juvenile Court. Seagrave volunteered to help there, too, as well as at Seattle’s new Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. Her OB-GYN practice thrived. Her lectures on infant care drew crowds of women to the Bon Marché department store. She reported on child-care facilities in Seattle.
Seagrave was accorded privileges at all of Seattle’s hospitals and became chief of staff at Seattle General Hospital. The hospital’s internship program for nurses and physicians was one of her abiding interests.
In 1921-22, Seagrave headed the committee that oversaw construction of the impressive new home of the Women’s University Club.
She was a patron of the Cornish School of Music and the Seattle Art Museum, as well as regional director of the Soroptimist Clubs, dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls around the world.
Never married, Dr. Seagrave shared her home with her father, who died at the age of 85 in 1927. “For a year, I tried to go on living at my old home, but it was too lonesome,” she told the Johns Hopkins alumni bulletin. She rented out the house and moved in with a dear friend from Wellesley’s Class of 1909, Willye Anderson White, the widow of a prominent Seattle financier. Seagrave became an honorary aunt to her friend’s three children — Fred, 18; Horace, 16; and 9-year-old Willye Jr.
In January 1929, the five of them set sail from San Francisco on an ocean liner for a trip around the world. They spent three months in Vienna, where Seagrave met with noted surgeons and visited hospitals. From there they rented a motor car and roamed Eastern Europe. The “trip of a lifetime” included a flight from Paris to London. “I highly recommend the air to all,” Seagrave wrote.
Seagrave and White were having a quiet Sunday dinner at home when the doctor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died at age 53 on Nov. 10, 1935. It was the day before the 17th anniversary of the armistice that ended the suffering “she had worked to alleviate with skill and valor,” one eulogy said.
“She was a woman of fortitude,” the King County Medical Bulletin wrote. “Her passing was as she would have chosen. There was ‘no sadness of farewell.’ There were no long days and nights of illness and failing strength; there was no time at which she was not at her accustomed post of duty in service to others.”
Seagrave bequeathed a diamond ring to White, $1,000 to her office nurse and $500 to the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. Most of the rest of her estate, estimated at $15,000 to $20,000, was left to Heliker, and to White’s daughter.
In a letter to their Wellesley friends, White wrote that Seagrave gave away more money than anyone knew. “She was always putting some youngster through college and I suppose never turned down anyone who asked for help. That’s who she was.”