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Lillis Wood Starr.

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Starr, Lillis Wood (1865–1938)

By Michel Sun Lee

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Michel Sun Lee is a Ph.D. in Religion in the Americas in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the history of contestations over Sabbath-keeping between religious majorities and minorities in nineteenth and twentieth century America. She also holds master’s and bachelor’s degrees in history from Stanford University.

First Published: January 29, 2020

Lillis Adora Wood Starr was a Seventh-day Adventist physician, the first female medical doctor authorized to practice in Mexico, and an active member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

Early Life and Mission Work in Mexico (1865–1895)

Lillis Adora Wood was born in Monroe, Wisconsin on September 5, 1865 and grew up in Missouri. After a year of college, she worked as a teacher in a public school for four years before training as a Seventh-day Adventist Bible worker in Chicago. Subsequently, she earned her medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1891. She worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium for two years following her graduation. While she had been initially interested in the work among women in India, in 1893 the church’s Foreign Mission Board sent her, along with four coworkers, to Guadalajara, Mexico to start a sanitarium and school.1 Wood ran the medical clinic under the supervision of Elder Dan T. Jones. She was the first female physician and one of the first Protestant missionaries to receive governmental permission to practice as a medical doctor.2 Though her time in Mexico was short, the clinic attracted an overwhelming interest from the community.

Medical Evangelism and Ministry in the United States (1895–1938)

She returned to the United States in 1895 due to ill health and overwork. She married John Ankeny Starr (1868–1938) later that year, with whom she had two children, Russell and Julia. (Her husband’s middle name is sometimes spelled “Ankeney.”) They took up residence in Michigan, and John began studying medicine but did not complete his training due to financial difficulties and a nervous breakdown.3 In 1903, convicted of Ellen White’s counsel to leave Battle Creek, the Starr family moved approximately forty miles northwest to Orangeville, Michigan to work as self-supporting missionaries.4 In 1905, they moved again when Lillis took over direction of the Atlanta Sanitarium in Georgia.

In 1907, Starr joined the faculty of the newly founded College of Medical Evangelists in Loma Linda, California. She and her husband were active in medical evangelism in the larger community; Lillis offered lectures and house-to-house demonstrations on various health topics in San Bernardino and neighboring towns. The local school superintendent, learning of her work, invited Starr to give health talks and distribute copies of The Youth’s Instructor temperance issue in area public schools to as many as 1,500 students at a time.5 She also taught science and medical missionary courses at San Fernando Academy.

Starr had been a leader in the Georgia branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and involved herself deeply in the same organization in southern California. As Ellen G. White had with S. M. I. Henry, she encouraged Starr’s involvement in the WCTU, which offered the physician a special position of influence to share the seventh-day Sabbath doctrine with other women.6 Simultaneously, White wrote to John A. Burden about not hindering Starr from working with the organization.7 Starr’s active role in the WCTU opened many opportunities for her to distribute Adventist literature and speak to large audiences across southern California.

In the 1920s, Starr and her husband spent a period of time in Nogales and Tucson, Arizona. There, she was—adding to her other achievements—the first woman admitted to the Pima County Medical Society in 1926. Living in Nogales, she worked with mothers and children on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.8

The Starrs moved to Los Angeles in 1928 so that Lillis could recuperate from some minor injuries before departing on another trip to assist the College of Medical Evangelists with a hospital project in Sonora, Mexico.9 In 1938, she died of injuries from a serious automobile accident, just a few months before the death of her husband.

Sources

“Editorial Notes.” The Medical Missionary, July 1905.

Foreign Mission Board Meeting minutes, November 26, 1893; December 4, 1893; December 11, 1893; December 25, 1893; July 30, 1895.

“John A. Starr obituary.” Pacific Union Recorder, July 27, 1938.

Lillis Adora Wood necrology file. Box 741. University of Michigan Alumni Records. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Lillis Wood Starr biographical file. Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, Loma Linda University.

“Lillis Wood-Starr obituary.” The Medical Evangelist, March 17, 1938.

“Lillis Wood-Starr obituary.” Pacific Union Recorder, April 13, 1938.

Membership application/transfer cards (1926–1940 binder). Minutes of the Pima County Medical Society, 1904–1954. Arizona Health Sciences Library. http://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/digital/collection/pcmsmin/id/7887/. Accessed on July 30, 2018.

“News from the Field,” The West Michigan Herald, May 18, 1904.

Olsen, M. Ellsworth. A History of the Origin and Progress of Seventh-day Adventists. 2nd ed. Takoma Park, Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1926.

Olsen, O. A. “The President’s Address.” General Conference Bulletin, February 15, 1895.

Robinson, Dores Eugene. The Story of Our Health Message: The Origin, Character, and Development of Health Education in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 3rd ed. Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1965.

“The Council Meeting.” General Conference Bulletin, February 11, 1895.

“The Religious Liberty Department.” General Conference Bulletin, May 18, 1909.

Year Book of the International Medical Missionary and Benevolent Association, 1897. Battle Creek, Michigan: International Medical Missionary and Benevolent Association, 1897.

White, Ellen G. Ellen G. White to “Friend.” May 30, 1907. Letter 188, 1907. Ellen G. White Estate.

White, Ellen G. Ellen G. White to John A. Burden. September 2, 1907. Letter 274, 1907. Ellen G. White Estate.

White, Ellen G. Ellen G. White to Lillis Starr Wood. September 5, 1907. Letter 278, 1907. Ellen G. White Estate.

White, Ellen G. Ellen G. White to Lillis Starr Wood. September 19, 1907. Letter 302, 1907. Ellen G. White Estate.

Notes

  1. Foreign Mission Board Meeting minutes, December 25, 1893, General Conference Archives.

  2. “The Council Meeting,” General Conference Bulletin, February 11, 1895, 105; O. A. Olsen, “The President’s Address,” General Conference Bulletin, February 15, 1895, 148.

  3. Lillis Adora Wood necrology file, University of Michigan Alumni Records. Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

  4. “News from the Field,” The West Michigan Herald, May 18, 1904, 3; Lillis Wood Starr, “Schools of Health—Lectures,” n.d., Lillis Wood Starr biographical file, Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office, Loma Linda University, 1.

  5. Ellen G. White to “Friend,” Letter 188, May 30, 1907, Ellen G. White Estate; Dores Eugene Robinson, The Story of Our Health Message: The Origin, Character, and Development of Health Education in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1965), 372; see also Lillis Wood Starr biographical file.

  6. Ellen G. White to Lillis Starr Wood, Letter 278, September 5, 1907; Ellen G. White to Lillis Starr Wood, Letter 302, September 19, 1907, Ellen G. White Estate.

  7. Ellen G. White to John A. Burden, Letter 274, September 2, 1907, Ellen G. White Estate.

  8. Lillis Adora Wood necrology file.

  9. Ibid.

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Lee, Michel Sun. "Starr, Lillis Wood (1865–1938)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=FA83.

Lee, Michel Sun. "Starr, Lillis Wood (1865–1938)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Date of access September 29, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=FA83.

Lee, Michel Sun (2020, January 29). Starr, Lillis Wood (1865–1938). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved September 29, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=FA83.