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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

A Doctor at Sky’s Edge: Susan Anderson and the Practice of Medicine on America’s Last Frontier

Seventy miles west of Denver, in a small town nestled 8,574 feet above sea level there rests the town of Fraser. Today an enclave of 1,400 hearty souls it was, in 1907, one of the United States’ last wild places; the home of stout Scandinavian lumberjacks and the brave-unto-foolhardy men who operated the rickety, avalanche-prone train line over the Rocky Mountains. That year there arrived in Fraser an anomaly in more senses than one – a small tubercular woman doctor seeking to escape a run of bad fortune, all alone save for a small dog that followed her everywhere and snapped at everyone.


Her name was Dr Susan Anderson and her life to that point had not been a happy one. Her father, William Anderson, was by turns domineering and paternally attentive and, after he divorced his wife, Marya Pile, five years after Susan’s birth in 1870, and took both Susan and her younger brother John with him to Wichita, Kansas, his was to be her sole parental influence. In Wichita, William was regarded as a fine veterinarian, and he cherished high ambitions that one of his children might become a doctor. Susan showed both higher intellectual promise than her somewhat diffuse brother, and greater drive, and when she declared in her teens an ambition to be a telegraph operator, William purchased a book for her, What Women Can Do, by way of encouraging her to set her goals higher.


John and Susan went to grammar school together, but when it came time for Susan to attend high school in Wichita proper, William declared that she must wait two years for her brother to catch up to her so that they could go to school together, and she dutifully complied, teaching at the grammar school she had just graduated from, and waiting for John. A stellar student at Wichita, she graduated in 1891 at the age of 21, just in time to have her life turned upside down by two momentous events.



The first of these was her father’s marriage to a woman by the name of Minnie, only a few years the senior of Susan. In the years to come, Minnie worked concertedly to divert as many resources as possible away from William’s first two children and towards her own, almost derailing the completion of Susan’s medical education in the process. That tendency, however, seemed a minor irritant at first next to William’s sudden decision in 1892 to move to Cripple Creek, Colorado, where massive gold deposits had just been discovered. Among the first settlers of the area, William made the prudent decision to make his money not in mining for gold but in trading shares in prospective and already established mines.


William’s business prospered while Susan experienced the discomfort of being one of a small handful of young women in a ramshackle town of rough prospectors. William disliked the marked attention they paid to his daughter almost as much as he disliked being caught in the middle of the regular fights between Susan and Minnie – two problems which could be solved at a stroke by sending Susan off to college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. At the time, the student body was 25 per cent female, and all classes save anatomy were co-educational, a marked improvement over the situation several decades prior, when Elizabeth Blackwell and her successors began the fight for women’s medical education. The cost to attend was a whopping $35 per semester (at the time an average semi-skilled worker could expect to make, depending on the region, about $1.25 a day), which was manageable so long as William’s business prospered, but the year Susan entered Ann Arbor was also the year of the great Crisis of 1893, and soon Minnie was remonstrating with William to cut off Susan and John’s college funds.


William sent a letter to Susan, explaining that, as John had not been making full use of his expensive education in California, it was senseless to keep spending money for it, and that, if John was no longer getting an education, it was ‘only fair’ that she stop attending Ann Arbor as well and return home to Cripple Creek. She refused, and thanks to a wealthy friend, was able to continue paying for her last years at the college. She worked hard as a medical student on the night shift at Catherine Street Hospital, pushing herself through sleepless nights, and taking every opportunity to watch surgical methods.


During her last year at Ann Arbor, she contracted tuberculosis, with its accompanying fits of coughing and weakness and the grim likelihood of a much-truncated lifespan. Susan returned to Cripple Creek in 1897 to set up a small practice in a town already possessing too many medical practitioners, many of whom were little more than itinerant quacks. Her practice was small, but by 1900 life seemed to be on the up and up. A mysterious gentleman by the initials of W. R. had proposed marriage, and her loveable, if perpetually under-achieving, brother had moved back into town.



Then, dual tragedy struck. After a mysterious conversation with her father, W. R. suddenly pulled out of the proposed marriage, and in March John contracted pneumonia. William and Minnie did not inform Susan of his sickness right away, and by the time they did call her to treat him, there was nothing left to be done; on 16 March, John passed away, leaving Susan suddenly very alone in the world.


She left Cripple Creek, the site of so much loss and conflict, intent on making her own way as a doctor. She set up practice first in Denver, in 1901, but as a newly arrived woman doctor suffering from tuberculosis, she failed to make much headway and was ultimately compelled to accept a position as a nurse in Greeley, Colorado, where she was resented by the other nurses for her superior education. Her tuberculosis was not improving, and the crush of a 1907 diphtheria epidemic stretched her reserves of energy and mental fortitude to the breaking point.


The previous year, she had spent a blissful slice of time in the town of Fraser, where the air was so thin, cool and dry, that her fragile lungs could breathe it to their content. Perched high atop the world, peopled by colourful characters, set in an atmosphere of crisp mountain beauty, it seemed the ideal place to go to recover her strength and sanity after the buffeting she had received at Greeley.


She was noticed immediately after stepping off the platform at Fraser – an attractive if frail 37-year-old woman setting foot in a town dominated by Swedish lumberjacks, hired to clear the virgin forests, and poor miners working to blast a way through the mountainside to provide a safer alternative to the existing and ludicrously underserviced rail line. The local rumour mill soon established that she was in fact a doctor, and though she did not set out immediately to practise medicine, she was soon sought out by a man in wide-eyed panic, demanding that she must come to his house to save ‘Dave’, who had been caught up in barbed wire. She went with the man to his property, only to find that Dave was, in fact, a horse, and that seemingly the entire town had gathered to see what this small, tuberculosis-ridden woman could possibly do to cure him.


Annoyed at the deception, Susan saw a suffering creature before her and set to work, sterilising her equipment, issuing orders and setting herself the dangerous task of stitching together the multiple gashes across the legs and flank of a massive, frightened farm horse. One errant kick could have meant the end of Dr Susan Anderson at that point, but the locals noted with admiration how she stayed at her task until it was completed to her exacting standards. Word got out fast – Dr Anderson, or Doc Susie as she insisted on being addressed, knew her stuff.


For the next half a century, Susan Anderson gained for herself a reputation as the best rural doctor in the territory. She was so beloved by the Scandinavian lumberjack community that, when she was kicked out of the shack she lived in by the railroad company that owned the right of way through it, dozens of Swedes descended on a patch of territory that had been donated to her, and made a day of erecting a home and doctor’s office thereupon to her exacting specifications, as a way of thanking her for all of the work she had done for them.


When she took patients over the mountains to the nearest city hospital, her opinion was treated with dignified respect by doctors there who earned more in a week than she did in a year. In fact, one of their favourite instructive pranks to play on interns unfamiliar with Doc Susie was to watch as they put on airs when she entered the hospital in her rough, practical country clothes with a patient in tow, and proceeded to dictate to her what her patient really ailed of, only to have Anderson’s original diagnosis routinely proven correct upon closer examination. The doctors thought it an excellent lesson in humility and respect for their cocky young charges.


In 1926, Susan Anderson was sworn in as coroner for Grand County, a post which brought some much-needed extra money into her pockets while also placing her in the centre of the ongoing debate over worker safety at the construction site for the great Moffat Tunnel, a 6.2-mile-long project conceived by industrialist David Moffat, and seen through at breakneck speed by William Freeman, whose neglect for basic safety precautions along the existing line was legendary.


Anderson spoke up about the need to realise the unpublished tragedies connected with the construction of the tunnel, that the casualties were not limited to those who perished in the occasional tunnel collapse, but included those wounded and poisoned in the long course of their work in ways that never made the papers. When the tunnel was first opened in 1928, and the wives of the tunnel and railroad workers were not given seats on the first train through in order to make room for the dignitaries chosen by the regional newspaper, the Denver Post, she placed herself at the tunnel’s mouth with a collection of brave locals and workers, and wrote in large letters on a sign big enough for Freeman to see from his seat on the first car, ‘WE BUILT THIS TUNNEL THE POST DIDN’T.’


Several times over the ensuing decades, Anderson considered moving to a more hospitable clime out East, and just as often she found herself unable to leave behind the town that had come to rely upon her rigorous efficiency and kind heart. She had brought the techniques of modern medicine, including thorough sterilisation procedures, to groups of men who had been treated as essentially expendable up to that point, and groups of women who expected little more than silent and monotonous suffering as their lot in life. She continued serving as a doctor in Fraser until 1956, finally retiring at the age of 86, and resided in that town until 1958, when her colleagues at Colorado General Hospital took over her end-of-life care, seeing to it that Colorado’s most distinguished frontier doctor (Ethel Barrymore had inquired after the rights to making her life into a movie) came to an end as peaceful as her long and often arduous life most decidedly deserved. Dr Susan Anderson died on 16 April 1960, in a rest home in Denver, Colorado.


FURTHER READING:


Virginia Cornell is the historian who did the work gathering the pieces of Dr Anderson’s story together from letters, newspaper profiles and local Colorado records. Her book, Doc Susie: The True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies (1991) is probably in the top ten of flat-out most enjoyable Women In Science reads you are likely to come across, full of big characters, forbidding landscapes, as well as personal, familial and professional drama of the most eternally compelling sort. Plus, it has perhaps my favourite end of a chapter yet written, concluding the chapter about the treatment of Dave the Horse:


‘It was an era when house calls were common. But Doc Susie’s first medical case in Fraser was a horse call.’


I mean, come on. That’s solid, right there. 13/10.


And if you want to read more tales of great women physicians, check out my History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available from Amazon, and Pen and Sword US and UK.



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