Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920

Biography of Dr. Helen Waterman, 1856-1945

By Erica Bade, History Undergraduate, UC Santa Barbara

Physician; Medical Record Librarian; Member of Advisory Committee in the Berkeley Club of the WCTU; Associate Council of the Berkeley Suffrage Campaign; Member of the Alumni Association of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania; Vice President of the Northern California Association of Medical Records Librarians, President of the Northern California Association of Medical Records Librarians

Dr. Helen Jane Waterman was born on December 15, 1856, in Wilmington, Illinois, to her parents Jane Gardner and Robert Whitney Waterman. She moved with her family from Illinois to San Bernardino, California in August of 1874, when her father purchased a ranch. Robert was the owner of a mine and a businessman in California before the Republican Party nominated him for the position of the Lieutenant Governor of California, to which he was elected in 1886. When Governor Washington Bartlett died in September of 1887, Waterman became the California Governor and served for the remainder of the term. Due to her father's position, much of her family's life was documented in the Waterman Papers, a series of letters, articles, and pamphlets from each member of Helen's family, including her seven siblings. After Helen graduated from school and returned to California, her mother, Jane, began living with her in San Francisco until she died in 1916. Then, Helen's sister, Abby Louisa Waterman, moved in with her, and they lived together in Berkeley. By 1920, according to the U.S. Census, Helen moved into her brother's home, living with him for the remainder of her life. Helen never married and spent her entire life as a single woman, never having any children.

Shortly after arriving in San Bernardino, Helen began her education at the Mills Seminary, as documented in the school's catalogs. Later, Helen attended the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated with her medical degree on May 20, 1897. Upon graduation, Helen became a physician and practiced for many years in San Francisco and Berkeley. Dr. Helen Waterman was recorded in the Register and Directory of Physicians and Surgeons in the States of California, Oregon, and Washington 1905 as a graduate of the Medical College of Pennsylvania and a resident of Berkeley in Alameda County. Helen was also documented in the Women's Medical Journal Vol. 22, although this was just a record of her change of address from one area of San Francisco to another in 1912. During her time as a physician, Helen also attended the University of California, Berkeley. Though the exact dates are difficult to determine, she was noted as a summer session student in 1913, and her photo appeared in the 1914 yearbook. In her junior year, Helen was even nominated for Junior Class President. After her mother died in 1916, Helen decided to retire from practicing medicine, although she did remain active in the medical community. Helen kept in touch with her Medical College, and in June of 1916, Helen attended the 41st Annual Meeting of the Alumnae Association of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania as a general member.

In the 1910s, the Berkeley Club of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) hired a house in the central part of the city for eight months to serve as its headquarters. Helen served on the advisory committee for the club, where she helped organize events. Since 1896, this was part of the WCTU's women's suffrage efforts, which included assisting the new Equal Suffrage League that had been formed in San Francisco out of a consolidation of other suffrage clubs.

Also, Helen was a member of the Associate Council of the Berkeley Suffrage Campaign Headquarters. As stated in the San Francisco Call, this organization strove to gather people in support of the Amendment to the California State Constitution for women's suffrage. The club held weekly meetings and distributed pamphlets and literature on suffrage.

In September of 1911, the College Equal Suffrage League and the Oakland Amendment League joined together in their last week of campaigning for Amendment No. 8. As documented in The San Francisco Call, the league opened rooms at the junction of Broadway and Telegraph Avenue, securing a permit to hold open-air meetings there. Dr. Helen Waterman was among the women that the College League secured to speak at the suffrage talks on September 29th.

According to Voter Registration records, Helen was a registered Republican during her lifetime. In addition to suffrage and as a highly educated woman, Helen was also invested in education reform. In February of 1913, Helen attended a luncheon in support of education reforms. According to the Oakland Tribune, the luncheon members advocated for the passage of Assembly Bills 600 and 603, which would attempt to make elementary schools "sound and progressive."

Outside of her fight for suffrage, Helen was active as a medical records librarian. In 1937, Samuel Merritt Hospital established a new training school for medical record librarians, and Helen was one of the very first students. As the Oakland Tribune noted in a series of articles, after her training, Helen soon served as the Vice President of the Northern California Association of Medical Records Librarians until she was elected to President on September 20, 1939.

After a long life of practicing medicine and fighting for women's suffrage, Helen died in her sister's home at 88 years old on October 14, 1945, in Berkeley, California.


California Medical Association. Official Register and Directory of Physicians and Surgeons in the State of California. 1905.

Catalogue of the Mills Seminary. 1876. Accessed 13 March 2021. P. 10.

Cazaly, Sue and Mae Silver. The Sixth Star: Images and Memorabilia of California Women's Political History 1868-1915. Old Street Press, 2000.

"Chapter IV: California." History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 6: 1900-1920, edited by Ida Husted Harper. New York, NY: National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1922 [LINK].

"Fair Physicians." The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 May 1897, p. 3.

"Head Librarians." Oakland Tribune, 23 September 1939, p. 9.

"Helen Waterman's Death." The San Bernardino County Sun, 23 Oct 1945, p. 5.

"Librarians to Elect Officers Tomorrow." Oakland Tribune, 19 September 1939, p. 14.

"New Training School." Oakland Tribune. 19 November 1937. Pg. D13.

"Oakland Suffrage Leagues Perfect Plans for Campaign to Carry Amendment No. 8." San Francisco Call, Volume 110, Number 122, 30 September 1911, p. 13.

Partridge, Francis Harrington and Mansel Penry Griffiths. The 1914 Blue and Gold. 1913. Accessed 12 March 2021. p. 1083.

State of California, United States. Great Register of Voters. Sacramento, California: California State Library. Accessed 12 March 2021.

Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.

The Woman's Medical Journal, Volume 22. Recorder Publishing Company, 1912. Accessed 19 Feb. 2021.

"U. of C. Classes to Elect New Heads Tomorrow." Oakland Tribune, 20 January 1913, p. 10.

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls. Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.

University of California, Berkeley, "University of California, Berkeley Summer Session." Google Books. Accessed 15 March 2021. P. 177.

Waterman family papers, BANC MSS C-B 491, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.

"Welfare of Child Given Attention at Luncheon." Oakland Tribune, 15 February 1913. p. 3.

Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania Alumnae Association. Transactions of the... Annual Meeting of the Alumnae Association of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. The Association, 1916. Accessed 18 Feb. 2021.

back to top