Benjamin Alonzo Cathey was born on February 17, 1854, to W.G. and Thursa Jane (Cornutt) Cathey, not long after they arrived in Gresham, Oregon, by wagon train in 1853. He was first of twelve children. The Catheys had left Missouri on their wedding day and traveled with ox-teams in the same train as Thursa’s family. When they finally reached Oregon, having dealt with the problems typical of pioneers forging their way across the West, they relied on a local family, the Dunbars, for a dry place to stay as they searched for a donation land claim. They settled on a 320-acre claim that included part of Gresham Butte, starting their new life with only a buffalo robe, a blanket, a pillow, a change of clothes, two tin cups, two knives, forks and spoons, a frying pan, and a coffee pot, according to W.R. Chilton’s Gresham: Stories of our Past, published by the Gresham Historical Society.
Benjamin grew up on the land claim his parents farmed and attended high school in Portland. He put himself through two years at Albany College, alternating college study with teaching posts and giving singing lessons. He took a position teaching in Brownsville, Oregon, where, according to a Canyonville newspaper article by John Hall, written in the 1980s, “he was considered the catch of the season by every mother in the area who had a daughter of marriageable age.”
Lucinda Elizabeth McFeron was teaching in Brownsville when she and Benjamin met. She was born in Kirksville, Missouri, on August 26, 1856, and her family had moved west after the railroad connected through to Oregon. Her parents were Hannah Beaty and Andrew McFeron, originally from Kentucky. Elizabeth graduated from Kirksville State College in Missouri before her family came west by train from Jefferson City to San Francisco, and then to Portland by ship. Her parents bought a farm in Brownsville, where she found a job as a teacher. Elizabeth and Benjamin were married August 8, 1876, in Brownsville.
After their marriage, Benjamin served as principal in Halsey, then taught in Canyonville and Riddle before accepting a position as principal of the schools in Roseburg in 1878. After three years there, he returned to Canyonville when the local school board offered him a higher salary to help with discipline among older boys in the school. For the next several years, the communities of Roseburg and Canyonville engaged in a bidding war for Benjamin’s services, and he and Elizabeth moved back and forth several times, but it was in Canyonville that he forged a friendship with the town’s physician, Dr. Merrick, who inspired an interest in medicine and encouraged Benjamin in his study of the field.
Benjamin often joined Dr. Merrick as he made house calls, and he became increasingly involved in the doctor’s practice. In the winter of 1884, when he was forced to close his Canyonville school due to a diphtheria epidemic, Benjamin joined Dr. Merrick in fighting the outbreak full-time. When Dr. Merrick was called away, Benjamin continued to assist the ill and was credited with saving many lives. The experience galvanized his determination to study medicine and devote his future to medical practice.
In the fall of 1888, Benjamin entered the Medical Department of Willamette University, earning his M.D. in 1890. He graduated with the university’s first medical school class. He established a practice in Woodburn, where he stayed for nine years, until the medical school moved to Salem and he followed to accept the post as chair of the physiology department. He resigned his professorship after four years in order to settle in Corvallis so his children could attend Oregon Agricultural College. Their family home on Fifth and Adams was a favorite gathering place for the Cathey’s children and their friends.
Benjamin and Elizabeth had five children: Cecil, George, Collie, Alice Marie, and Evelyn. Their father’s vocation obviously had an impact on the children—George and Collie both became doctors, practicing with their father in Corvallis, and Evelyn became a nurse. All of their children were active at Oregon State University and in the Methodist church, where their father served as choir director.
Dr. Cathey’s practice in Corvallis’ early days was truly that of a country doctor. He often traveled far into the Alsea Valley with a horse and buggy to deliver babies. Sometimes he had to shout across the river to wake the ferryman so he could get back home. He performed surgery on kitchen tables. He gained a reputation as a skilled and generous physician.
Elizabeth was active in Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Guest Club, the Tuesday Afternoon Reading Club, and the Coffee Club, a book club that was instrumental in providing library books to firefighters. She also participated actively in the YWCA, which was a strong organization at the time that actively supported college students. Her granddaughter, Helen Randall Dickason, remembers that she always welcomed her children’s friends over for dinner, that there was much time with friends and family, and that everyone “had so much fun together.” Elizabeth was a charter member and first Worthy Matron of the Woodburn Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star and a member of the First Methodist Church.
After practicing medicine in Corvallis for many years, Dr. Cathey sold his practice to Dr. R. L. Bosworth, then moved to Condon, Oregon, and then to Portland in 1922, where he practiced medicine with George and Collie. Dr. Cathey died in Portland on August 18, 1931. Elizabeth died July 5, 1946, in Portland. He is remembered by many as one who saved lives during the epidemic of diphtheria in the winter of 1884 and 1885; as the man to bring the first x-ray machine to Corvallis; and, as a stern but kind teacher and principal.
This memorial scholarship fund honors the contributions of Dr. Cathey and his wife, Elizabeth, by providing scholarships for medical study.