Dr. Louisa “Lutie” Van Vleet Wright was born in 1862 to Lewis and Angeline Van Vleet in their beautiful house in Oak Grove Farm in Fern Prairie. Little did they know their daughter would become Clark County’s first female medical doctor.
The Van Vleets travelled by oxen train 10 years earlier over the Oregon Trail from Missouri before settling in 1855 on a 160-acre donation land claim that took in what is now the Fern Prairie Cemetery.
Wright knew early she wanted to become a doctor after considering nursing. She stayed true to her professional goal weathering some naysaying from her own family. Female doctors were atypical in the 19th Century. Men were in control and making the decisions.
Earning a primary education, Wright taught in Grass Valley and other area schools making $25 a month. She saved enough tuition to attend Oregon Medical School before transferring to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Wright graduated in 1885 at age 23 with a medical degree.
First practicing in Missoula, Wright soon missed her hometown in Camas and decided to return. She set up practice in the tiny Camas papermill village in 1887. Wright rode sidesaddle before getting a horse and buggy to tend to patients as far away as Yacolt and Mt. Norway (northeast of Washougal).
Dr. Louisa Van Vleet Wright was Clark County’s first female medical doctor serving the Camas-Washougal area. She was the second doctor with a medical degree.
A Lifetime of Serving Others
Wright had to fight more than disease. Her son, Cecil Spicer, told of the time when a husband hurried in from the hills to get the doctor for his sick wife. While he was in town, a huge tree had toppled over, blocking the road back to his home. When he and Wright met this obstacle, they rolled the horse under the tree, took the buggy apart, pushed the pieces under the tree, put it back together again on the other side, and went on their way.
According to research by historian Sally Alves at Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal, Wright was considered a ministering angel to thousands of people by the community because of her kind and sympathetic manner.
Her good deeds extended beyond healthcare. Driven to make a difference, Wright spent 12 years serving on the Camas School Board. She was nominated to run for mayor while serving as a Camas City Health Officer. During the 1912 election, without campaigning, Wright lost the leadership role by one vote.
Cecil was born to Wright during her marriage to William Spicer in 1887, a druggist in Fern Prairie. Siblings Lewis and Edith followed during this troubled union that would end in divorce. Wright struggled to raise three children alone while running her practice. During these difficult times, she met Jim Wright. He owned a Camas livery stable and became a sympathetic shoulder for the female doctor. Feeling he was the right choice, Wright married Jim in 1901. What appeared a good solution to Wright’s problems by getting married again soon went sour. Cecil claims in a 1976 interview that Jim was unkind to the Spicer children. He was equally harsh with Wright. She stuck with the troubled marriage keeping a brave front with her medical practice and community endeavors.
Until Wright’s death on May 30, 1913 at the age of 51, no challenge hindered the physician’s years of devotion to healing the sick and delivering babies. “She was indeed inspiring,” agrees Clark County historian Pat Jollota. “Not historical fact, but I doubt her husband’s story of a horse kicking her and killing her.” Jollota shares that Clark County doctor’s second husband, Jim Wright, said she came out of her house wearing a white apron as he was hitching his horse to a singletree. As Wright walked in front of the equine, her apron flapped startling the horse. The animal kicked her in the chin breaking her neck. “I’ve never heard of a horse kicking forward,” he adds. “He was hitching the horse so it couldn’t have reared up and come down on her.”
According to Jollota, Jim, a previous widower with five kids of his own, remarried three or so months later.
“They had to delay her funeral,” says Jollota, so that the Indians she had treated for so many years could come down river by canoe to attend.”
Buried in Fern Prairie Cemetery three miles north of Camas and within sight of her birthplace, Wright was laid to rest next to her father. Ironically, on the day of her death, she was planning to tend to her family burial ground.