Stories & Commentaries

Unintended Odyssey: History Professor’s Dissertation Discovery Leads to Major Book Deal

Dr. Alicia Gutierrez-Romine poses with her book in front of the historic Riverside County Courthouse. Photo by Natan Vigna

Alicia Gutierrez-Romine poses with her book in front of the historic Riverside County Courthouse. Photo by Natan Vigna

It started with a mistake. Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, La Sierra University assistant history professor, arrived at the California State Archives in May 2015 to research her dissertation topic, but discovered she did not have the required authorization for certain records. Eventually, though, the professor would end up with a major book deal.

A couple of years prior to Gutierrez-Romine joining La Sierra’s faculty as an assistant history professor she was pursuing a doctorate in history from the University of Southern California (USC). She aimed to spend a week looking through archived material in order to begin work on her dissertation investigating the experiences of physicians of color in Southern California during the post-World War II era. She wanted to delve into the inequities they suffered and analyze the juxtaposition of racism within the medical community and its ethical obligation to do no harm.

She had acquired funding from USC to glean historical information from the California State Board of Medical Examiners documents and physician license revocation files in the state archives. But she had not realized that she first needed permission to access files that were processed less than 75 years ago. The permission protocol would take a couple of weeks to complete. 

So she decided to make the most of her 436-mile journey from her home in Riverside to the archives’ facility in Sacramento, and began looking through revocation files that were old enough to be publicly available. What she found led Gutierrez-Romine down a pathway that illuminated details about a little-known sector of western medical history and its societal impacts. The window she opened into the byzantine and secretive world of criminal abortion along the West Coast and across the Mexican border during the early to mid-20th century and its impacts on California law culminated in the production of her first book. Titled From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920 – 1960, the work was published last November by the University of Nebraska Press and is noted as the first scholarly foray of its nature on the topic.

Her academic odyssey resulted in two appearances on C-SPAN public affairs television, one an interview with the network’s American History TV and the other the filming of her history class last year.

Seeds Planted

The seeds of her research pivot were planted within the first hours of reading through files at the state archives. She came across documentation of an organized crime ring of 32 physicians who were performing medically-safe, illegal abortions all along the West Coast. During the era of the Great Depression, the so-called Pacific Coast Abortion Ring doctors were earning the modern-day equivalent of millions of dollars a month. Gutierrez-Romine found that virtually nothing had been published about this group save a small footnote in another scholar’s book. As she walked back to her hotel that evening, she emailed her dissertation advisor, William Deverell, professor of History, Spatial Sciences and Environmental Studies at USC, and asked whether he knew anything about the group of physicians she had discovered. “He said, ‘I've never heard of this before, you need to find out everything you can,’” she explained. At that moment Gutierrez-Romine’s dissertation topic changed.

Deverell recalled the moment his student contacted him about the information she’d found. “If any student encounters something in their research that the advisor has no knowledge of, the directive is easy.  Find out. And with Professor Gutierrez-Romine, I knew that her drive and discipline would kick in and that, before long, she’d be the one to turn to for insight into this mystery,” he said.

Gutierrez-Romine’s book is an important contribution, Deverell said, describing his former student as a “fierce investigator” who aims to “research and write history that is important beyond the classroom, beyond the tests and the lectures and the scholarly articles.”

Making History

Gutierrez-Romine finished her dissertation in the spring of 2016 and graduated from USC with her Ph.D. She continued revising the dissertation for about a year while adjunct teaching at California State University, San Bernardino, and sent out book proposals to approximately a dozen publishers. The University of Nebraska Press responded and after a peer review process, offered a contract in November 2017.

“It felt like my research was validated,” Gutierrez-Romine said. “It felt like I was making progress towards these academic goals that you're supposed to have, teaching publishing and writing and getting your research out there, so it was a high moment for me.”

Gutierrez-Romine is currently well into her next research project drawn from her original dissertation idea, examining the lives of physicians of color primarily in Southern California during the mid-20th century. She is looking into the life of Edna Griffin, the first Black female physician in Pasadena beginning in the late 1930s who also served as the first female president of the city’s NAACP chapter and spearheaded efforts to desegregate a local swimming pool, according to city information. Gutierrez-Romine’s project garnered a Littleton-Griswold Grant last summer from the American Historical Association, the oldest professional association of historians in the United States.

Life’s pathways and successes are sometimes stumbled upon as in the case of Gutierrez-Romine’s first book and in many ways her career as an historian. The Loma Linda Academy graduate and Moreno Valley native’s interests were first nurtured by the treasured stories passed down from her grandparents about their service and contributions during World War II. Her grandfather was a soldier serving under General Patton and her grandmother, a ‘Rosie Riveter’ type who worked on bomber aircraft in Burbank. Gutierrez-Romine also had a love of cooking and thought she might open a restaurant. To that end, she first studied business at Cal State San Bernardino while also majoring in history for the pleasure of it.

Although she lost interest in business studies, she continued to pursue a history degree and later earned a graduate degree in the subject. While working as a teaching assistant she found an interest in education. “I'm happy that I am where I am, but it wasn't really something that I expected I was going to do until maybe 10 years ago,” she said.

— Darla Martin Tucker is director of public relations at La Sierra University.