“Dr. May”: From Milk Stool to Microscope

She would work sixty years as a pathologist, becoming one of the most respected in the Southwest.

But first she had to overcome her time and her place.

Her time was the late nineteenth century. Her place was rural Texas.

Neither time nor place was conducive to a woman’s becoming a physician. Together time and place constituted a double-dog dare to a woman.

Lillie May Owen was born on a farm in Falls County in 1891. By the turn of the century she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“When I was a wee child at play, I was always the doctor,” she later recalled.

She “doctored” the cats, dogs, chicks, and calves on the farm.

But medicine is a man’s profession, she was told by adults, including her father.

But one adult encouraged her. And the encouragement of this adult mattered. He was her family doctor.

May moved to Fort Worth, the Star-Telegram wrote in 1986, to complete high school. Then she enrolled at TCU and was accepted by its medical school, located downtown at 5th and Calhoun streets. The medical school originally had been part of Fort Worth University.

While attending medical school, the Star-Telegram wrote in 1982, May worked in the laboratory of Dr. Truman C. Terrell, whose Terrell Laboratories for more than fifty years was associated with All Saints Hospital. Terrell gave Owen a job as a messenger, picking up and delivering specimens and caring for the animals used in lab work.

She walked from her quarters at TCU to the original All Saints Hospital on Magnolia Avenue to save the nickel streetcar fare.

The few female medical students at TCU at the time were supervised by Dr. Frances Daisy Emery Allen, who in 1897 had graduated from Fort Worth University’s medical school.

Twenty years after Dr. Allen graduated, when May Owen was a second-year student, only about 5 percent of Fort Worth’s two hundred or so physicians were women. In medical school women were still rare enough that this 1917 feature begins with “Yes, they are women. They study medicine, everything that real masculine M.D.s study.”

Ouch.

The four female students excelled in their first year, the Star-Telegram wrote, each earning the top grade in a subject. May Owen earned the school’s highest grade in bacteriology.

Owen graduated from TCU in 1917 and applied to numerous schools to get her medical degree but was rejected.

She also applied for nursing school. But even there May found closed doors.

“I was turned down for nursing school, if you want to know it,” she told the Star-Telegram in 1982. “They wrote back a very frank letter and said your grades are all right, but all you know how to do is work and study, and we want well-rounded people. They wanted me to have some accomplishments, and I didn’t.”

Finally she was accepted by the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky.  She was the first woman to enroll at the school.

And then, for the second time a doctor helped her. Dr. Terrell lent her money to finish medical school.

May Owen never forgot the people who encouraged her. She later recalled: “There was always somebody there to help me over the hills that I didn’t think I could climb and across the streams I didn’t think I could make.

“To have someone . . . quick to reassure you and encourage you is invaluable.”

Once admitted to the University of Louisville, she still faced obstacles. For example, the Star-Telegram wrote, she was excluded from classes when male students examined each other. She recalled that one of the male students was always kind enough to tell her what they had learned.

She graduated in 1921 and completed postgraduate training at prestigious medical centers: the Mayo Clinic and New York City’s Bellevue Hospital.

May Owen had long known that she wanted to specialize in laboratory work, not enter general practice. The influenza pandemic of 1918 had only increased her interest in bacteriology.

In 1928 she returned to Terrell Laboratories, where she eventually became senior pathologist. She worked at Terrell Laboratories and All Saints Hospital the rest of her life.

And she worked hard.

“You must not be afraid to work. Work is honorable and challenging,” she said.

She lived for more than forty years in the Hotel Texas and ate her meals in its coffee shop because it was open all night. She often worked fourteen- and sixteen-hour days and worked through regular mealtimes.

A pathologist is a detective who solves mysteries that are invisible to the naked eye. Dr. Owen was proudest of her research that resulted in the paper “Peritoneal Response to Glove Powder” because it contributed the most to humanity.

Her discovery solved a mystery posed in her laboratory in 1936 by tissue from a young girl presumed to be tubercular. But exhaustive examination of numerous slides failed to confirm tuberculosis.

So, Dr. Owen investigated and discovered that the culprit was the talcum powder used in surgical gloves. The glove powder used at that time was not absorbable by the human body. If during surgery the powder fell from a glove into an incision, the body reacted to the powder as a foreign substance. Scar tissue built up around the powder. If adhesions formed, obstructions could result. Peritonitis was a possibility.

Dr. Owen’s discovery was confirmed by outside research. TCU awarded her an honorary master of science degree for her paper. And Johnson & Johnson, a major manufacturer of the powder, changed its formula.

Dr. Owen had left the farm behind, but she had not left the farm girl behind. Her knowledge of livestock served her well.

For example, in 1931 sheep in the feedlots at the Swift packing plant were dying. Veterinarians were mystified. She spent hours sitting on the pen fences at the feedlots, counseling with veterinarians. She sat up nights with sick sheep, had them carried into her office to be observed and treated.

Dr. Owen and two veterinarians discovered that the sheep were fed intensively, particularly on molasses cake, while in the lots. When the weather was cold the sheep assimilated the carbohydrate diet satisfactorily. But when warm weather came they could not assimilate and died.

Her paper “Diabetic Coma of Feed Lot Sheep” was recognized by the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

Dr. Owen also conducted research into rabies and cancer.

One physician said of her: “There is no doubt that more doctors turn to her for advice about problems of scientific medicine and laboratory medical problems than any other physician in our community.”

Despite the long hours she worked, Dr. Owen found time for community service.

She was a trustee of Tarrant County Junior College (now Tarrant County College) District from its inception in 1965 to her death. Photo shows the original TCJC board of trustees in the mid-1960s. Top row, left to right: Delbert Adams, Edward Hudson, Dr. J. Ardis Bell, Reverend L. L. Haynes; bottom row, left to right: Dr. Owen, Jenkins Garrett, John Finn. (Photo from Tarrant County College Northeast, Heritage Room.)

TCJC Chancellor Joe B. Rushing said, “She never allowed the college to pay any part of her expenses. Everything she has done for the college has been done on her own.”

She helped organize the Tarrant County chapter of the American Cancer Society in 1948. In 1963 she headed a Tarrant County Medical Society committee that sponsored the city’s first health fair.

She was a trustee of the Fort Worth Boys’ Choir and a member of the national board of the Women’s College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Dr. Owen, known as “Dr. May” by colleagues, was recognized by the medical community with a wall’s worth of awards. She was humble, dismissing the awards with “I’ve just been here a long time.”

1945 First woman president of the Texas Society of Pathologists

1947 First woman president of the Tarrant County Medical Society (with only one dissenting vote—her own)

1952 Recipient of the Tarrant County Medical Society’s Gold Headed Cane Award

1955 Named Medical Woman of the Year by the Medical Women’s Association

1958 Awarded the George T. Caldwell Award, the highest honor given by the Texas Society of Pathologists

1959 First woman president of the Texas Medical Association

1965 Honored by the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History with a hall of health sciences named for her

1969 First woman to receive the Texas Medical Association’s Distinguished Service Award

1982 Honored by Tarrant County College District with a downtown administrative building named for her

1985 Awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Texas Tech University

1986 Inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame

Dr. May Owen died on April 12, 1988 in her workplace for sixty years: All Saints Hospital. All Saints had provided her with an apartment in the hospital.

At age ninety-six she still reported to work every day at either All Saints or Glenview Hospital, where she was on the staff.

Fort Worth allergist Dr. Charles A. Rush said, “She worked every day of her life. She was trying her best to live to be one hundred. She didn’t quite make it.”

On the day before she died Dr. Owen worked in the lab at All Saints and also traveled to laboratories in Dublin, Hico, and Olney in her role as a consulting pathologist in rural hospitals.

In a 1986 interview Dr. Owen said she never thought of retiring. “You’ve got to keep going. You die if you don’t.”

The Star-Telegram eulogized Dr. Owen as “an inspiration.”

Dr. May Owen is buried in Bluebonnet Hills Memorial Park.

But she lives on in her support for her profession. If Dr. Owen was respected as a pathologist, she was beloved as a philanthropist.

During Dr. Owen’s tenure as president of the Texas Medical Association, the association’s Physicians Benevolent Fund was established to help needy doctors—particularly those who become disabled. Hundreds of physicians contribute regularly to the fund.

She established a nursing scholarship at Tarrant County Junior College and the May Owen Trust Fund, administered by the Texas Medical Association, to provide low-interest loans to medical students.

When Texas Tech University’s School of Medicine opened in 1972, Dr. Owen obtained twenty thousand volumes for its library and contributed $500,000 for an endowed chair in the department of pathology.

She had no children by birth, but she had hundreds of children by benevolence: “May’s boys and girls” they were called: more than five hundred doctors, nurses, technicians, and dentists she helped through medical school—financially and spiritually.

“I guess ‘spiritually’ is the word for it,” Dr. Rush said. Rush was a premedicine student at TCU when he met “Dr. May.”

“She encourages people,” he said in 1982. “She counsels with them. I think her life has been dedicated to helping others, helping get people educated who want to be educated. She’s made a lot of them think they could do it, and they have.”

He recalled how she helped him meet costs when his G.I. Bill education benefits ran out halfway through medical school. “I remember the tuition was overdue, and they said pay it by tomorrow or you’re out,” Rush said. “She wrote a check out of her personal account and said, ‘Pay it back whenever you can.’”

Dr. Jim Swink, an orthopedic surgeon, was another student to whom Dr. Owen lent money for medical school. “When I needed to borrow money, I would go to her office, and she would write out a check with never any discussion of interest or when it had to be paid back,” he recalled in 1982.

“But the money was a small part of it,” Swink said. “The money I could have gotten somewhere else. The important thing was she believed in me, and I respected her.”

Many of those people she helped through medical school met her when they were premed students in college and needed a part-time job.

She put them to work in hospital labs.

She also trained more than one hundred laboratory technicians at Terrell Laboratories.

Among them were these lab technicians at All Saints Hospital. Top row center is my mother.

Postscript: May Owen, who overcame the obstacles of her time and her place to become a female physician, did not live to see this milestone, but a century after she and three other medical students at TCU made news because of their gender, in 2017 the Association of American Medical Colleges counted noses and reported that for the first time more women than men were admitted to medical schools.

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2 Responses to “Dr. May”: From Milk Stool to Microscope

  1. Ruth Karbach says:

    Your information about her education does not match my research including that in her authorized biography. According to my research her brother, who made money in silver mining in Colorado, paid for her and her sister to attend TCU’s high school set up for rural students when she was an adult. She was in the Fort Worth School Medicine program then it was affiliated with Texas Christian University in a 6 year combination of medical education and a bachelor’s degree, which was frowned upon by the AMA medical education committee. When the medical school closed in 1918, May and the three women in the article you included were stranded. Because of the AMA standards, Owen and the three other women faced either earning a bachelor’s degree and re-starting medical education or choosing another profession requiring less education. When Owen received her Bachelor’s Degree she applied to Baylor Medical School which had accepted senior male students from Fort Worth Medical School but rejected her two years later though they accepted Baptist women medical students.

    • hometown says:

      Thank you for your insights. My sources were mainly Star-Telegram articles. I have edited that passage according to my understanding of the chronology.

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