In her lifetime, Dr. Esther Clayson Pohl Lovejoy transformed the Portland Board of Health in Oregon by regulating the milk supply, providing funds for school nurses, and gaining Portland a national reputation for its high standards of sanitation. She also helped to establish the Medical Women's International Association and the American Women's Hospitals which, under her leadership, grew from an emergency committee for war-relief into an international service organization operating in thirty countries.
Esther Clayson was born in 1869, in a logging camp near Seabeck, Washington Territory, and grew up in Portland, Oregon. Her father was an English seaman who had jumped ship in 1864 and brought his family to join him three years later. His attempts to support his family as a lumber merchant, hotel manager, newspaper editor, and farmer were not entirely successful. After such unsteady beginnings, young Esther Clayson decided that she had no desire to be the helpmate of an Oregon farmer or pioneer hotel keeper. For a while, she could not decide between a career in theater or medicine. While theater seemed unreal to her, medicine was "drama in its highest form."
The woman doctor who delivered Esther Clayson's youngest sister became an inspiration for her to enter the University of Oregon's Medical School in 1894. Taking a year off to earn money, she finished in four years and graduated with a medal for her strong academic achievement.
Shortly after graduation Dr. Esther Clayson married her classmate, Emil Pohl, and the two set up a private practice in Portland, where she worked as an obstetrician and her husband as surgeon. Dr. Esther Pohl spent most of 1896 at the West-Side Postgraduate School in Chicago but two years later, she and her husband had relocated to Skagway, Alaska, where her brothers were suppliers to gold prospectors. The Pohls spent almost two years in Alaska, visiting patients by dog sled and helping establish the Union Hospital. After her brother Frederick's death in 1899, she moved back to Portland, visiting her husband, who remained in Alaska, only during the summer. The couple had a son in 1901 and left him in the care of Esther's mother, allowing Esther to pursue her interests in women's suffrage, public health, and obstetrics and gynecology. After spending most of 1904 attending an obstetrics clinic in Vienna, Austria, Dr. Pohl returned and became the first woman to direct the Portland Board of Health. The board made great strides under her guidance, regulating the milk supply, providing funds for school nurses, and gaining Portland a national reputation for its high sanitation standards. Tragically, her own son died in 1908 from septic peritonitis attributed to contaminated milk.
Dr. Esther Pohl set up a private practice in 1908 and went to Berlin for further training in 1909. On her return in 1911, she learned that her husband had died in Alaska during an encephalitis epidemic. Despite this second tragedy, she continued her practice and her political work during the next few years. She married Portland businessman George Lovejoy in 1912, a marriage that lasted only seven years. From 1911 to 1920, Esther Pohl Lovejoy continued her support of women's suffrage, the League of Nations, and Prohibition, even running for a seat in Congress. She was an outspoken campaigner, publicizing the plight of poor farmers in the Northwest and calling local bankers "bandits" who charged ruinous interest rates in order to profit from the farmers' misfortunes.
With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, in 1914, Dr. Lovejoy moved east to work with the American Medical Women's Association, and in fall 1917 she traveled to France under its auspices. During the day she worked in a Red Cross Hospital, and in the evenings she visited charity hospitals, hoping to create a string of such institutions throughout Europe. After she returned to the United States, she spent the next year and a half lecturing about her experiences in France and described the trip in her first book, The House of the Good Neighbor, published in 1919.
Her lectures helped fund the establishment of the American Women's Hospitals, an outgrowth of the American Medical Women's Association, to serve displaced and injured war victims. She led the organization for forty-seven years, from 1919 to 1965, and in 1919 helped found the Medical Women's International Association.
During the years that she ran American Women's Hospitals, the group created outpatient clinics and orphanages and provided public health services. After World War I the organization focused on other crises, and with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the American Women's Hospitals provided medical care in Britain, Greece, and the Far East, expanding into thirty countries. Later in life, Lovejoy continued to encourage women to enter the field of medicine. She wrote two books to record women physicians' achievements and endowed medical scholarships at her alma mater, stipulating that one-third of them should go to women.