As the 1800s drew to a close, Santa Barbara had six practicing women physicians, quite unusual for the time, especially given the city’s size. One of these physicians was Belle Reynolds, whose successful practice here was only one of many accomplishments in a most adventurous life.
She was born Arabella Macomber in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, in 1840. Shelburne Falls was a stop on the Underground Railroad, the system set up to spirit runaway slaves to safety. The Macombers numbered among their friends antislavery activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and young Arabella became a fervid abolitionist.
The family moved to Iowa in 1854, and two years later, the 16-year-old returned to Massachusetts to attend the Women’s Collegiate Institute for teacher training. Upon her return to Iowa, she became the first professional teacher in Cass County. In 1860, she married Illinois druggist William S. Reynolds, and the most dramatic period of her life was about to begin.
The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 galvanized the young couple. William almost immediately enlisted in a volunteer
Illinois regiment. His wife was determined to accompany him to the front, a practice that was not quite as unusual as we would view it today. For the rest of 1861 and into the following year, she traveled through Missouri and along the Mississippi River with the regiment, living in a tent, eating the same rations, and enduring the same discomforts as the soldiers. Then, on the morning of April 6, 1862, she found herself engulfed in the Battle of Shiloh.
The initial Confederate attack threw the Union forces into confusion. With her husband off to battle, she was instructed to abandon camp and make for the riverboat Emerald in case the Federals could not hold. As the battle raged, more and more wounded were brought down to the river, and for the next 36 hours she became a nurse, treating some of the most terrible wounds imaginable. She even assisted surgeons with amputations on patients who at times had to undergo the procedure without sedation; in her journal she gives a graphic account of this horrific, grisly business. At one point she almost fainted but, fortified by a shot of brandy, continued duties. When it appeared the Union line might give way, the boat was nearly swamped by panicky soldiers, and Reynolds helped hold them off by brandishing a pistol.
Shortly after the Union victory, Reynolds returned home on the same steamer that carried the governor of Illinois. When he heard her story, he commissioned her a major in the Union army right there on the spot. Reynolds went on to further travel with her husband, taking part in the Vicksburg campaign, until he left the service in June 1864.
The next 20 years involved much travel and the slow erosion of her marriage, which ended in an 1884 divorce. In 1879, Reynolds, whose father and a brother were physicians, had entered medical school in Chicago. Upon graduation, she practiced at the Home for the Friendless in that city and became very active in the Red Cross. After accompanying a patient to Santa Barbara in 1891, she opened an office here, specializing in pediatrics and women’s medicine.
She continued to travel extensively. In 1893 she journeyed to Pomeroy, Iowa, which had been devastated by a tornado, as a representative of the Red Cross. During the Spanish-American War, she sailed for Manila in the Philippines to open a Red Cross hospital. Although this never came to fruition, she remained long enough to inaugurate several educational and health programs.
Dr. Reynolds closed her practice here in 1915. She remained active and vital even though age robbed her of her sight in her last years. She died in 1937, just short of her 97th birthday, the first woman commissioned a major in the United States Army.
More like this story
Michael Redmon, director of research at the Santa Barbara Historical Society, will answer your questions about Santa Barbara's history. Write him c/o The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101.