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Cheaper by the Thousand: Celebrating Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle

Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle, c. 1900
Lou Page Hickox (American, 1874-1915); Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 7 x 4 3/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Alice Smith

Continental Abode of Waffles

This past Tuesday was International Women’s Day, a holiday falling during Women’s History Month which is dedicated to celebrating women and looking at the contributions of women throughout history. Just last year, the Bowers Blog featured a four-part series looking at some of the most influential women in the Bowers Museum’s own history including our first Curator, an important Registrar, and the Chair of the current museum board. To celebrate this year, we look at a Santa Ana resident whose home now sits just a few short blocks away from the Bowers Museum: Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle. As one of the first women doctors in Orange County she was by her own admission met with staunch prejudice. This post looks at a group of photographs of the doctor and her home as well as one curious object from her life.

Dr. Howe-Waffle House, October 8, 1966
Unknown photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 4 x 5 in.
Bowers Museum Collections

Proposition Physician

Willella Earhart was born in Jefferson County, Virginia on October 25, 1854. Unfortunately, very little about her early life is known, particularly when exactly she took her grueling three-month wagon ride out to California. What is known is that she married her first husband, Alvin Howe, in Orange County just one year after he finished his medical program in 1873. A year after their marriage, Willella Howe gave birth to their eldest daughter, Lulu. Aside from being a mother to a young child, she passed her days teaching at the Bolsa School and volunteering her time to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Perhaps medicine was a lifelong interest to her or perhaps she felt that women deserve better medical care than she observed them receiving from male doctors, but over time she decided to follow in her husband’s career path. With his support, just a short time after the birth of their second daughter in 1881 Willella Howe attended Hahnemann Medical College, a school of homeopathic medicine that had been founded in 1860 in Chicago. The school first started admitting women in 1871 and by the time that Willella Howe attended approximately a sixth of the graduating class were women. After completing her program, she returned to Santa Ana and began practicing medicine alongside her husband. The pair hired a prominent architect to build their iconic Queen Anne style Victorian home on the corner of 7th and Bush St.

Surface Pressure

Alvin Howe became the second mayor of Santa Ana, only to have his reputation ruined in 1890 when he was tried and found guilty by a grand jury of having performed an abortion for a woman whose husband was working in another state. He was acquitted, but with the city having turned its back on him, he abandoned Willella and their two children—despite them having supported him through the trial. Willella became, for all intents and purposes, a single mother of two children all the while working as a medical doctor and staying active in the church. In 1897 she and Alvin finally divorced. Just a few short years later she met and married an Orange County rancher named Edson Dwight Waffle, changing her name to Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle.

Dr. Howe-Waffle Feeding Birds in Her Aviary, c. 1900
Unknown photographer; Santa Ana, California
Photographic print; 5 x 7 in.
Bowers Museum Purchase

Waffle Babies and Cough Syrup…

To say that Dr. Howe-Waffle was a pioneer is an understatement; she was a woman possessed with helping the people of Orange County. It is estimated that over her almost 40-year career she delivered a staggering 1,000 babies, lovingly dubbed “Waffle babies” in her honor. On several occasions she weathered horrific storms to make house calls to the sick. She did not vacation, her home away from home was a greenhouse and a 200-bird aviary in her backyard—anything else might have taken her too far away from her patients. She famously passed away while treating a patient on November 12, 1924, dying while doing what she loved most. Though she had to work harder than her male counterparts to earn it, she became respected, beloved, and—in death—honored by the whole community.

Buggy Whip Given to Edson D. Waffle by Willella Howe-Waffle, early 20th century
Unknown maker; Santa Ana, California
Wood, leather, ivory and gold; 84 in.
Gift of Charles E. Waffle

…With a Cool Whip Topping

In 1964 Charles E. Waffle, son of Edson D. Waffle, gifted the Bowers Museum an 84 in. buggy whip that Dr. Howe-Waffle had herself picked out and given to her second husband years before. Certainly, a more eclectic artifact than say, any of her medical equipment—much of which has been reproduced at The Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum—it still shows that in addition to her many responsibilities she still found the time to get a bespoke gift for someone she cared for deeply.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. References are available on request. Information subject to change upon further research.

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