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Eriksmoen: Woman pushed for first osteopathic practice in ND

Before voting was extended to females in North Dakota, a woman appeared before the Legislature, where she was opposed by the entire medical community, and she won. The bill that Helen deLendrecie championed was the legalization of a new healing procedure and enabled her to establish a college in Fargo.

In the fall of 1879, O.J. deLendrecie and his new bride, Helen, moved to Fargo, where he “erected a small, wood-frame building” on 618 Front (now Main Avenue) to sell “quality goods” to the city residents. He originally called his business the Chicago Dry Goods Store” and later changed the name to the O.J. deLendrecie Company. He also purchased a home at 69 Front Street.

At first, Helen was busy helping out at the store and decorating her new home. She loved Fargo, but began to miss members of her family, especially her two younger brothers, Edward and Charles, who had worked in her theater company. In 1881, she convinced one of her brothers, Charles Basye, to move to Dakota Territory, and he obtained a homestead claim near Hope. Two years later, he established a ranch near Coldwater Lake in McIntosh County.

One of Helen’s passions was collecting fine china. When it was announced that North Dakota would have an exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, she generously donated several pieces of expensive china. Helen was also active in getting a Unitarian Church built in Fargo. In 1892, she raised much of the money to have the church constructed on the corner of 9th Street and 2nd Avenue South.

On Sept. 20, 1894, a new newspaper appeared in Fargo, the Daily Commonwealth, and Helen was hired to write a regular column. She also joined her husband in becoming actively involved in politics. O.J. had become vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1893, and Helen’s major cause was women’s suffrage. She organized the Political Equality Club of Fargo and served as its first president.

In 1895, Helen helped found the North Dakota Equal Suffrage Association, and when they held their first convention on Nov. 14, she was elected treasurer. Soon, her speeches and articles helped to galvanize women in the state. Helen believed that she was serving a mission from God. On a front page article of Western Womanhood she wrote, “When the index finger of God’s providence points the way, who can refuse it.”

Helen ran for a position on the school board, and on April 21, 1896, was the top vote-getter, becoming the first woman elected to a position on a Fargo city-wide ballot. A short time later, she began experiencing a sharp pain in her chest and went to see a doctor. The physician told Helen that she had cancer in her right breast and performed a mastectomy. When the soreness from the operation subsided, she noticed that the original chest pain remained. On a return trip to the doctor, Helen was told that the cancer must have moved to her left breast and she should also have that one removed. Helen refused and told the doctor she would seek another opinion.

Western Womanhood had been running a number of articles about a new procedure called “osteopathy,” a medical therapy that stressed manipulative techniques for correcting ailments.

Helen traveled to Kirksville, Mo., where she was examined by Dr. Andrew T. Still, the nation’s leading practitioner of osteopathy. After the examination, he reported that there were no traces of cancer, but that she did have a fractured rib. After six weeks of treatment, she returned to Fargo. A grateful Helen asked Still to help her get a practice established in Fargo, if she could get the Legislature to approve osteopathy as a medical practice. He agreed.

Helen knew it would be difficult to get the legislature to approve of a new practice since the medical community would unanimously oppose it. To make the task more daunting was the fact that she was a Democrat, and the Republicans outnumbered Democrats 24 to 3 in the senate and 45 to 0 in the house. The Fusionists had 4 members in the senate and 17 in the house.

However, Helen had established a good reputation across the state, and the allies she cultivated in and around Fargo were formidable. Long-time Fargo senator John Haggart introduced Senate Bill 109 on Feb. 4, 1897, allowing the practice of osteopathy in North Dakota. On the 7th, Helen testified, and received a warm applause when she finished. George Winship, editor of the Grand Forks Herald, wrote that he thought Helen “hypnotized the legislature” with her presentation. The bill passed 24 to 7.

SB 109 then went to the house, where it was introduced by James Ryan and Treadwell Twitchel.

On Feb. 12, it passed the house with a vote of 46 to 16. All it needed now was the governor’s signature, but that was a problem. Governor Frank Briggs was absent because he was suffering from tuberculosis and had been advised to go south to try and recuperate. This gave the medical community time to mount an attack against the osteopathy bill. Dr. Still came to North Dakota and refuted the doctor’s claims that osteopathy was not legitimate.

Briggs recovered enough to return to North Dakota, and he signed the bill on July 1.

Confident that the bill would become law, Helen contacted her brother, Edward, and encouraged him to attend Still’s college in Des Moines, Iowa, to become a doctor of osteopathy.

O.J. purchased the First Methodist Church in Fargo and had it moved to 101 8th Street South, where it became the Northwestern College of Osteopathy and the Fargo Osteopathic Infirmary. When Edward Basye received his doctorate certification, he became the physician at the infirmary and instructor at the college. Helen served as college president.

In 1902, Northwestern consolidated with Still’s college in Des Moines. The infirmary closed in 1911 when Edward moved to New Orleans.

Helen continued to work for women’s suffrage in North Dakota. She gave many lectures throughout the state, became the chief legislative lobbyist of NDESA, and provided space at deLendrecie’s store to serve as state headquarters. When the suffrage bill came up for a vote in the senate on Feb. 9, 1911, she spoke in favor of it, but the bill was defeated.

O.J. purchased the Maltese Cross ranch, which was established by Theodore Roosevelt, Not to be outdone, Helen purchased “several sections of Chimney Butte,” the other ranch established by Roosevelt in North Dakota. In 1914, the deLendrecies moved to Los Angeles and Helen died on July 22, 1926.