Sophronia Athearn Nichols
I visited the Alpine Historical Society’s Museum, in Alpine, California for the first time, intending to gather enough information to compose an article. The museum is actually an old house that was the residence of Sophronia Nichols 134 years ago. It was also where she conducted her medical practice.
Sophronia was the first medical doctor in Alpine. Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that she was also a Homeopath! Those 134 years began to melt away as I recognized a kindred spirit in Sophronia.
She was born November 27, 1835. Andrew Jackson was President of the United States; Comet Halley made its second predicted return, the Great Moon Hoax began, and homeopathy had been flourishing on our shores for fifteen years.
Called “Fronie” by her friends and family, Sophronia was the second child of six siblings. She experienced a conventional childhood and adolescence and in 1864, at the age of 29, received her teaching credentials from the Normal School, Bridgewater, MA.
She married in 1860 and though she had two healthy children, she also suffered five miscarriages. Motivated to understand and do something to help prevent this tragedy for other women, she made a choice that was anything but conventional; she went to medical school.
Apparently, it was such an unconventional choice that her husband left her, preferring not to be associated with a woman who would choose a medical career—a field that belonged almost exclusively to men. Sophronia’s husband divorced her, but her parents and siblings championed her choice.
Homeopathy began over 200 years ago, developed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann. Between then and now it has met with everything from full acceptance, with healing results printed in many prestigious medical journals such as The Lancet, Pediatrics, and the British Medical Journal, to severe skepticism and derision.
When I declared my intentions of becoming a homeopath in 2000, and began a four-year program, I was met with a similar array of responses. My mother was wholly supportive. My father rolled his eyes and groaned in disbelief.
It was a world of rapidly changing events. In 1867 Nebraska became the 39th state to enter the Union. Two years later the Trans Continental Railroad reached completion. The fourth cholera pandemic raged across central Europe and Africa. It was treated both homeopathically and with orthodox medicine. Among the remedies of choice were Camphora, Veratrum album and Nux vomica. With homeopathy, mortality rates varied between 2.4 and 21.1 percent. Fifty percent or more died under conventional treatment.
Results obtained through the use of homeopathy during epidemics reveals a very important and clear constancy: homeopathy reduces mortality rates. This remains true, regardless of the physician, time, place or type of epidemic disease, including diseases carrying a very high mortality rate, such as cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid fever, yellow fever and pneumonia.
The low mortality rates associated with homeopathic treatment are consistently superior to the results obtained not only by allopathic medicine practiced at that particular time but, as a rule, by modem conventional allopathic methods as well, despite the many benefits provided by modem nursing and hygiene care.” (See ref.
Sophronia was 39 in 1873. Banks failed and the depression was beginning. Fronie began her medical study at New England Female Medical College. Even by today’s modern standards, this would be considered a late start. She was determined to become a healer. Later that year she started at Boston University School of Medicine.
She graduated from there in June of 1874. There were four in her class, and not surprisingly, she was the only woman. She was restricted to treating the ills of women and children. She won the admiration of her colleagues with her thesis entitled: Puerperal Convulsions, pertaining to childbirth, and specifically from the period shortly before birth to the last six weeks after delivery. In today’s language puerperal convulsions are known as eclampsia, or toxemia.
The five graduating students formed the Alumni Association of Boston University, School of Medicine. It’s three-fold mission was to champion coeducation, homeopathy, and admission without regard to race or religion. In the early years the annual meetings were used as forums to exhort alumni to demonstrate the highest standards of medical practices as a way of blunting controversy over the efficacy of homeopathy.
Homeopathy was well established, but the mutual antagonism and distrust between homeopaths and allopaths was hindering its progress.
Fronie established her first medical practice in Corry, PA. Her family was proud of her and stood by her in her accomplishments, but she was a woman doctor in an age that was leery of female practitioners and her practice was not flourishing.
In December of 1875 Sophronia and her mother took the two children, Alice and Wilfred Nichols to San Francisco where her two older brothers lived. The brothers had written, expressing their belief that she would find more open minds in the West than in the conventional East.
Sophronia left young Willie in the care of her mother and her brother Joseph, and she and Alice took a steamboat to Seamockaway, Washington Territory. They stayed briefly and then mother and daughter continued on to Albany, Oregon in 1876 where she set up her medical practice. Fronie was 41.
In the world at large Colorado became the 38th state to enter the Union. America celebrated its 100th birthday. The battle at Little Big Horn was fought and the telephone invented, impacting the world’s ability to communicate in a powerful way.
Being a medical doctor and a homeopath, Sophronia was in an excellent position to incorporate the best of both approaches in treating her patients. In an era of pioneers, she was a true trailblazer. I can imagine how she felt. Today homeopathy is much more widely accepted in America, and yet, still met with skepticism in some circles. Why? It has to do with the dilution process involved in making the remedies. “The more a remedy is diluted and succussed, the stronger it becomes. The concept of the infinitesimal dose is one of the great stumbling blocks for a conventionally trained scientific mind,” says Miranda Castro, in Homeopathy for Pregnancy, Birth, and Your Baby’s First Year. With Homeopathy, less truly is more.
In 1878 Sophronia could be found listed in the Albany City Directory as Mrs. S. Nichols, Physician. Her practice was considered the second best in Albany. At this time both her children live with her sister, Carrie Foss, in Alpine, CA. Sophronia was far away from her children and family—maintaining a solitary medical practice and making a name for herself, and then she contracted malaria.
Cinchona, or Peruvian bark. Malaria was the first medicine “proved” by Samuel Hahnemann, when he was busy discovering homeopathy. During a proving a substance is administered to healthy individuals and their resulting symptoms recorded. What a substance can elicit it can cure.
Some of the symptoms elicited by the Cinchona provers were shaking, extreme chills, fever, nausea and heavy sweating—the same symptoms malaria produces. When rendered homeopathically, Cinchona proved highly effective in treating malaria and I imagine that’s what our dear Fronie used. And isn’t it interesting that Peruvian bark contains quinine, the same substance conventional medicine uses to treat malaria.
Later that year, Sophronia’s children, Alice and Willie, traveled by steamer to join their mother in Portland, Oregon. Sophronia sold her practice in Albany and the family moved to Santa Cruz, CA. In 1879 she received her California Medical License, the 26th to be issued in the state.
She opened her practice in Santa Cruz and they stayed there for only two years before moving on to Petaluma, in Sonoma County, CA, where Sophronia maintained her practice for five years. During that time the Presbyterian Congregation of Petaluma built its first church on Kentucky Street. Seventeen-inch hailstones, weighing 1.75 pounds fell in Dubuque, Iowa. Morgan Earp was assassinated by outlaws while playing billiards in Tombstone; the cornerstone for the Statue of Liberty was laid on Bedloe’s Island, and Chester Arthur was President of the United States.
Sophronia’s son, Willie, graduated in April of 1887 and in October the family moved to San Diego, where Willie started college. Sophronia set up her practice in their home on 6th Street. She was listed in the San Diego Directory as a Homeopathic Physician and surgeon.
Sophronia’s daughter, Alice, married and moved to Alpine. Sophronia’s sister also lived there, and soon Fronie moved to a little house on Tavern Road, that is now the Alpine Historical Society. Attached to the house is the old plank school house. It is the first school built in Alpine and was moved onto the property by Dr. Nichols, who used it as a dispensary.
Though we don’t have many details, we know that George Stephenson was the first baby Sophronia delivered in Alpine in 1895. On a different occasion, on a late, cold and wet night in January of 1897, Sophronia was awakened by a frantic knock at her door. A little boy of 10, named Ralph, had ridden nine miles on horseback, on country roads in the dark to fetch the good doctor. His mother was about to give birth and Sophronia was needed.
A quick change into warm clothes and grabbing her medical bag, Sophronia set out, with Ralph on the buggy seat beside her and his horse tied behind. They rode through the rainy night, a journey that we make in ten minutes took almost four hours back then.
Under Sophronia’s care Dorothy Walker Noble Markley was born, believed to be the second maternity case of her practice in Alpine. Sophronia stayed and cared for mother, baby and family for three days and then, satisfied all was well, returned home.
Dorothy grew up and later had a daughter, Betty Noble. It was Betty, as President of the Cemetery Association, whose actions resulted in the new grave site marker for Sophronia, memorializing this woman whose loyal service helped so many.
What homeopathic remedies might Doctor Nichols have taken with her? Possibly Calcarea phosphoricum, to use in alternation with Kali phosphoricum, in case the mother became exhausted during a long-lasting labor, or to assist with recovery after deliver. Calc phos would also address mild anemia.
Sophronia became a member of the California State Homeopathic Society on May 10th, 1893. That year she lived and practiced in Riverside, CA, before returning to Alpine in 1894. She was 59. New Zealand, at that time, was first to grant women the right to vote. Nikola Tesla, (not Marconi) invents the radio, Ellis Island becomes the reception center for new immigrants; Western Samoa changes International Date Line, so that year there were 367 days in this country with two occurrences of Monday, July 4. Also, Arthur Conan Doyle publishes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet—Nutcracker Suite–premiers.
Payment for the good doctor’s service might be rendered in money, but more often than not it is a chicken for the pot, a clutch of eggs or a basket of vegetables. Sophronia cared for all who came to her, and drove for many miles in her horse-drawn buggy day or night to attend the medical needs of those who couldn’t come to her. This was the life of a country doctor and homeopath, and Sophronia embraced it.
Fronie died on November 12th, 1903, and was buried in the Alpine Cemetery. Buried, but never forgotten, for Sophronia Athearn Nichols was a woman of substance and courage, giving great service. Her legend lives on in the hearts of many.
Your article re : Sophronia Athearn Nichols was wonderful & very informative. I was able to visit the Alpine Historical Society on 1/20/2022, & delivered a vintage photo album that my dad acquired from my great uncle Albon Athearn. My father started researching his genealogy in the 1970’s (before internet) We are from the Grandison Athearn side of the family. Any further information you could send me on Sophronia & family would be greatly appreciated. Thank you