Alpine Historical

Dr. Sophronia Nichols | Alpine’s First Woman Doctor

Dr. Sophronia Nichols, Age 25. From the Beatrice LaForce Collection.

Alpine's First Woman Doctor

Dr. Nichols was born Sophronia Athearn, on November 17, 1835, in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.  She was the fifth child of fifth generation colonists from England.  The Athearn family was a prominent pioneer family of Martha’s Vineyard as early as 1634.

Sophronia’s childhood and adolescence followed the conventional pattern of the era.  She graduated as a schoolteacher, married Joel Nichols and they started a family.  The following years produced five children, but sadly, only two survived.  Despite the stern regulations of the day regarding women’s entry into the man’s world of medicine, Sophronia pursued the career she craved.  She graduated in 1874 from Boston University Medical School, the only woman in her class.  Her first practice was in Corry, Pennsylvania, where she stated to her family as a wry fact of her existence that she had few patients.

Medical doctors were scarce enough out west that her two brothers from California thought she might find freer acceptance than in the conventional east.  So, in 1875, Dr. Nichols and her two children arrived in San Francisco.  She sent the children to live with her sister, Carrie Foss, in Alpine.

On June 26, 1876, Sophronia received her California Medical License, the 26th licensed doctor in the state.  This energetic, independent woman practiced medicine in Washington Territory; Albany, Oregon and also in Santa Cruz, Petaluma, Riverside, Otay and San Diego, California.  From 1886 to 1888 she is listed in the San Diego City Directory as a homeopathic physician and surgeon, with residence and office located at 1945 Sixth Street.  About this time, Dr. Nichols is mentioned in an old book on the Women’s Suffrage Movement as an early female physician.

She was fifty-nine when she returned to Alpine, a strong, husky woman who kept her hair very short, and let nothing stop her when called upon to attend a sick person.  She is well remembered by the descendants of her former patients.

On January 6, 1897, she delivered her first baby in Alpine.  That baby was Dorothy Walker, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Walker, founders of “The Willows”, a famous resort of the early days.  Dr. Nichols hitched her horse to her buggy, drove through the rainy darkness over the muddy, rutted road eight miles to the Walker home. 

After delivering the baby, the doctor stayed for three days to attend to her patients.  This, they said, was typical of the doctor.  She never left those in her care until she was sure they were out of danger.  Dr. Nichols, the country doctor, cared for anyone who came to her for help.

She answered calls from miles around, driving her horse and buggy over any kind of road, any time of the day or night.  Sometimes she was paid for her services, but many times she was not.  She was said to have accepted this as a fact of life for a country doctor.

She was active until 1901, when she suddenly had a stroke, after which she moved to Rancho Barona to live with her daughter.  She died November 12, 1903, and is buried in the Alpine Cemetery on Victoria Drive.

Several of Alpine’s earliest pioneer families are related to Dr. Nichols.  Her sister, Carrie Foss, moved to Alpine in 1875 with her husband and two children.  Two years later their brother Albon Athearn moved next to the Foss Family to help out.  Dr. Nichols’ daughter Alice married Nicholas Anderson and homesteaded near the Foss property.  Ann Athearn, the oldest sister in the family, moved to Alpine in 1906, dividing her time between Carrie’s children and her brother until her death in 1912.

All the Foss family members except Robert are buried in the Foss plot in the Alpine Cemetery, as are Albon and Annie Athearn.

So passed some of the early Alpine pioneer families.

Note:  This information was taken from a pamphlet, provided by Alpine Historical Society and (SCAIR) Southern California American Indian Resource Center, Inc., March, 2002.


1835, November 27th:  Born – West Tisbury, Dukes County, Massachusetts.

1836, September 4th:  Christened – West Tisbury, Massachusetts.

1855-1864:  Teaching credential from State Normal School, Bridgewater, Plymouth County, Massachusetts.

1853-1860:  Married to Joel Chase Nichols.

1860 Census:  North Bridgewater, Plymouth County, MA.  Joel 35 years.  A carpenter from Vermont.  Sophronia, his wife, 24 years from Massachusetts.  No children mentioned.

1861-1865:  Lost another baby in childbirth, Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

1866, July 8th:  Alice Jane Nichols born, Union City, Pennsylvania.

1869, September 19th:  Lived in Corry, Erie County, Pennsylvania.

1872, June 6th:  Wilfred Athearn Nichols born, Union City, Pennsylvania.

1873:  Sophronia began her medical studies at New England Female Medical College.

1873, November:  Started at Boston  University School of Medicine.

1874, June:  Graduated from Boston University of Medicine.  From old letters, her husband and children were living in East Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

1875:  First practice in Corry, Erie County, Pennsylvania.

1876, January:  Arrived in San Francisco with her two children.  Left her son Willie with her brother, Charles.  Sophronia and Alice went to Seamockaway, Wahkiakuma County, Washington Territory on a steamboat.

1876:  Sophronia moved to Albany, Linn County, Oregon.  From a December letter, Alice was living with Sophronia’s sister Carrie Foss in Alpine and Willie was living in San Francisco.

1877:  Albany, Oregon.  She had a medical practice and was listed in the Albany City Directory:  Mrs.  S. Nichols, physician – Post Office building.  July 7th letter stated both children were living with Sophronia’s sister Carrie Foss in Alpine.

1878:  Albany, Oregon.  Sick with malaria.  Has a chance to sell her practice.

1878, June:  Alice and Willie were shipped up to Portland, Oregon on a steamer to live with their mother.  Sophronia sent a telegraph that they had arrived safely.  Sophronia had the second best practice in Albany.

1879, June 26th:  Sophronia received her California Medical License, #26.

1880:  Practice in Santa Cruz, California.

1882 to 1887:  Practice in Petaluma, California.

1886, August:  Sophronia was still in Petaluma and traveled with her children to Oakland for the funeral of her brother Arthur.

1887, April:  Petaluma.  Son Wilfred graduated in February.  Planned to move to San Diego in October.

1887, October:  San Diego Directory listed Sophronia as a Homeopathic Physician, residing at 1045 6th Avenue.  Her son Wilfred was a student at Jordan & Atherton Commercial College.
1888, April 15th:  First mention of Aunt Sophronia living in Alpine
from Charles Foss Diary.

1888, October 21st:  Alice Jane Nichols married Nicholas Wilfred Anderson at Sycuan, San Diego, California.

1889 to 1893:  Practice in Otay, California from San Diego Herald Newspaper.

1890, January 11th:  Her beloved mother, Ann Athearn, died in San Francisco.  Dr. Nichols was still living in Otay.

1893:  Practice in Riverside, California.

1894:  Returned to Alpine.

1895-1896:  Wilfred, is listed in the Alpine Directory as a farmer. 
No mention of Dr. Nichols.

1897, January 6th:  Dr. Sophronia delivered Dorothy Walker, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Fred B. Walker, founders of “The Willows”.  Wilfred listed in the Alpine Directory until 1899.

1897-1902:  Dr. Sophronia Nichols lived in Alpine.

1902:  Dr. Nichols had a stroke at the age of 67 years and moved in with her daughter at Rancho Barona, Lakeside.

1903, November 12th:  Dr. Sophronia Nichols died at Rancho Barona, Lakeside, after a long illness.  She was buried at the Alpine Cemetery.

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