A good and noble thing: The new ‘Lady Doctor’

— From "A Good and Noble Thing"
When asked why she settled in the Helderbergs, Dr. Anna Ward Perkins said, "I knew little about the country, except that it must need what I wanted to do."

This is an excerpt from Gerard A. Finin’s just-published book, “A Good and Noble Thing: The Pioneering Life and Service of Anna Ward Perkins, M.D.” Perkins, raised by an affluent Boston family, has earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Radcliffe College and a medical degree from Columbia University — both unusual for a woman in her era — and is about to discover the Helderberg Hilltowns. Decades later, she was still there and served as Finin’s doctor, in his youth.

By the summer of 1928, Dr. Anna Perkins was at a crossroads. She had completed her medical degree, and her internships were about to end. Should she return to Boston as a medical practitioner?

That option offered many advantages: The comfort of old friends and family, a well-known and highly respected surname that would draw patients, and the opportunity to care for her aging parents and grandparents. In addition, the large beloved house on Perkins Street would easily accommodate a young rising physician.

Staying in New York City also appealed to her, mainly due to her concern for the large population of impoverished residents who were not adequately served by medical professionals. A third option, and one which Dr. Perkins contemplated for a time, would be to follow the path of her P&S classmate Dr. Mary Pauline Jeffery and serve in India.

Securing employment as a woman in one of New York City’s large municipal hospitals remained all but impossible. While hospital administrators valued eager and energetic female interns working for low pay, the more prestigious and well-remunerated staff physician positions went to men. In 1928 there were only three women doctors on the general staff of New York’s public hospitals.

Speaking to newspaper reporters that year, the highly-respected Dr. Josephine Baker, increasingly vocal about women’s equality, remarked that, “after the internship it is almost impossible for a woman to continue her work on the general staff of the hospital. I do not think it is a matter of prejudice. It is simply tradition, habit, and the law of supply and demand. I do not blame the men for not wanting to give up their jobs. But, nevertheless, it is a fact … .”

To make matters worse at this time, the New York Infirmary for Women and Children was proposing to close its doors for budgetary reasons. Employing forty-five “lady doctors,” it comprised the largest staff of women physicians in the city.

Dr. Baker strongly opposed this proposal, saying, “It would be very inadvisable to close the women’s infirmary and eliminate the one institution where a woman doctor can continue her hospital work.” According to the Bureau of Hospital Information, the thirteen leading New York hospitals employed 1,072 physicians, yet of this number only eleven were women.

Advocating for greater opportunities for women in medicine did not come easily to Dr. Baker, who had never publicly aligned herself with feminist politics or demonstrated politically. Rather, she had gained great influence and respect by using data-driven arguments to promote public health measures that brought impressive results.

 

— From "A Good and Noble Thing"
Francis and Anna Ward snowshoeing near their home above Jamaica Pond, Boston. While growing up, Anna looked upon her studious older brother as a role model. After completing studies at Cambridge University and Harvard, Francis became a music critic for the New York Herald. During her early years as a medical student at Columbia, Anna and Francis shared an apartment in Manhattan.

 

Her public pronouncements in 1928 suggest that during her long career she had grown increasingly frustrated as women physicians continued to be shut out of positions for which they were highly qualified. At this late point in her distinguished career, Baker realized that remaining silent was not going to help change the deeply ingrained, overwhelmingly male domination of the profession.

In mid-July 1928, Perkins family friend Otto T. Bannard sent Anna an article from The Survey Graphic, a magazine known for its well-written stories about social welfare and political issues of the day. Bannard may not have known of Dr. Perkins’s interest in Thoreau’s philosophy of rural living, but understood from their conversations that Anna was attracted to the idea of a country practice.

For this reason, an article titled, “The Village Doctor” had caught his eye — authored by Edmund N. Huyck, a name that neither Bannard nor Dr. Perkins recognized. Dr. Perkins was likely drawn to Huyck’s opening paragraph, a description of Dr. Platt Wickes’s practice in the Albany County Town of Rensselaerville. Recalling his own youth, Huyck wrote:

“When I was a small boy, a good many years ago, living in a little country village many miles from a city or a railway, one of my most vivid impressions was of the old doctor, seated in the curved-back leather-cushioned chair (which, with its legs removed, had been nailed to the seat of his cart) driving his sorrel horse through the village street and out into the country to visit his patients.

“My clearest recollection is watching him tap out from bottles little piles of white powder, mix them with the blade of his knife, separate the mixture into a number of equal piles and fold each neatly in a white paper. Colossal in size and terrible in taste they were, to the small throats for which they were intended.

“I don’t know what his education had been …. Nearly fifty years have passed since he died, and his successors have followed him or gone to more lucrative fields. The little village is now without a doctor, but in a village eight miles farther in the hills another doctor is carrying on with the same spirit and with his automobile is covering ten miles as quickly as the old doctor could go two.”

Huyck went on to relate the story of a recent conversation with a local farmer whose heart “went bad” the previous fall, and how the gentleman had traveled thirty miles to “the city” [Albany] for treatment. The larger point he bemoaned was the growing tendency of physicians to practice in large cities, leaving rural areas of upstate New York with an inadequate number of health-care professionals.

Although the article immediately piqued Dr. Perkins’s interest, she had no way of contacting Huyck directly. Instead, she wrote to the magazine’s offices and requested that her letter to Huyck be forwarded. When the letter arrived on his desk in Albany, the family name on the envelope’s return address was immediately familiar.

One of Edmund “Ted” Huyck’s closest personal friends and colleagues in banking and Albany civic affairs was James Handasyd Perkins, first cousin of Dr. Perkins’s father. Huyck spent most weekdays in Albany, but often waxed fondly to James about his native hamlet of Rensselaerville, where he enjoyed fishing and hiking on weekends.

Excited by Anna’s letter, Huyck did not wait for his stenographer to type a response. Instead, he wrote back in his own hand, inviting her to visit, and promising that the Helderbergs would not disappoint.

 

— Photo from "A Good and Noble thing"
Soon after arriving in the Helderbergs, Dr. Perkins stands next to her new car, carrying a still shiny black leather medical bag. "The best way to know the whole patient is to place house calls at the center of your medical practice," she said.

 

Exploring the Helderbergs

But what were these mountains Huyck wrote so glowingly about like? As one of three New York mountain chains, the Helderbergs are located between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. A Harper’s New Monthly article published in 1869 aptly described much of what the young Dr. Perkins would find so attractive:

“To those who desire to escape for a day from the oven-like city in summer; who wish to enjoy a scramble among romantic cliffs; in shady woods, beside cool mountain brooks and waterfalls; to view spots sacred to wild Revolutionary days of Tory and Indian depredation ... to gather the fossil corals and shells which, forming the very soil the farmer tills, cropping from out of the sod, are reared as farm walls or burned to lime ... the Helderbergs offers superior inducements.”

Author John Palmer Gavit, one of Huyck’s closest friends and one of Rensselaerville’s greatest intellectuals, described the region as a lovely area, saying, “Doubtless I think so because I live there; doubtless also I live there because I think so.” He captured the Helderbergs’ allure in the 1920s, as follows:

“You can go into the southwest from Albany, over the escarpment of cliff where the ‘Indian Ladder’ creeps through a gash in the rocky face. You can go round by way of Ravena, across the Onisquethau [Onesquethaw] and the Hannacroix, past the great new reservoir whence henceforth Albany will derive its water ... and as you pass you can reflect that fifty feet under-water are the noted Indian Fields, where for ages the Six Nations gathered for momentous pow-wows.

“You can look northward over it from ‘Route 23’ as you climb the north face of the Catskills, up from Catskill, Cairo, and Acre to East Windham, and the Catskill Creek in between … . Here you can make a summer refuge amid a summer Paradise, with a vista of mountain scenery that you might go far to equal. Dr. William E. Rappard of Geneva sat on such a porch and wondered: ‘With this to see, I do not understand why you have to go to Switzerland!’”

The Helderbergs that Dr. Anna Perkins would come to know so well were populated with descendants of the original hardscrabble farming families, mainly Palatine German and Swiss and old New England settlers, as well as some more recent migrants, all eking out a living on rural farms and in small villages.

Mary Fisher Torrance describes a 1767 map showing no settlers in the future Town of Rensselaerville, the only population consisting of “roaming bands of Indians from Stockbridge and Schoharie … . Their most traveled path in the region started on the Hudson River [at Lunenberg; afterwards Athens] following the valley of the Catskill Creek through the southwestern part of the township, being later the village of Preston Hollow, and on towards Schoharie. This road was crossed by one from Beaverdam [Berne].”

Colonization of the larger region traced its origin to the waterway that became known to European settlers as the Hudson River. Dutch acquisition of Iroquois land within two days’ walking range (roughly thirty miles) on each side of the river from present day Albany privatized a vast expanse, placing it under the control of Amsterdam-based Kiliaen Van Rensselaer.

To retain his land acquisition, Van Rensselaer was required to send settlers to what in the 1620s became the colony of Rensselaerwyck.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839), known as the benevolent Patroon of Rensselaerwyck, oversaw the peopling of the Helderbergs and witnessed many other changes in the young republic. During Stephen’s lifetime, settlers gradually moved to the Helderbergs, yet by the late 1700s, when the Perkins family was starting to amass its fortune in Boston, there were still fewer than one hundred settlers in Albany County’s hilltowns, each with a farm of some 160 acres.

As the Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer rarely, if ever, strictly enforced the tenancy contracts. He knew that these early settlers had few resources; many were veterans of the Revolution who had no capital and wanted to start families of their own.

The Helderbergs were seen as remote areas where families lived in log cabins or in rough-hewn wooden shovels, a far cry from the more prosperous and cultured communities situated near Albany and along the Hudson River. For Stephen Van Rensselaer it would have been unimaginable that a descendant of one of the young nation’s most elite families would one day reside and practice medicine in this inaccessible corner of his great domain.

Although Anna Perkins had lived in New York City, she had never ventured very far upstate; nevertheless, she was surely familiar with the city of Albany, if for no other reason than her father’s periodic trips there to visit his relatives or confer with clients on architectural projects.

Dr. Perkins’s grandfather, Charles Callahan Perkins, had a half-brother who had resided in Albany for most of his life. The Right Rev. William Croswell Doane, Dr. Perkins’s great-uncle, had arrived in Albany in 1867 where he was eventually named the first Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Albany.

Described as “a Prince of the Church and a Man of the World,” Doane oversaw a diocese that covered almost all of northern New York including, Albany, Greene, Schenectady, and Schoharie counties. As a builder, Doane was responsible for construction of All Saints Cathedral in central Albany.

He also founded a variety of faith-based organizations to assist individuals from all walks of life. The relationship between the Doane and Perkins families is not well documented, but there are records of Dr. Perkins’s father, CB, making numerous trips to Albany, and Bishop Doane traveling to Boston from time to time.

The public debates and controversies that engaged Bishop Doane are instructive of the times in which Anna Perkins grew up, and the environs where she would reside for most of her life. In the late 1800s, for example, Doane participated in a long-running debate with Irish Catholics over their perennial accusation that America’s Episcopal Church was too close to the Church of England.

Anna W. Perkins’s great-uncle also had definite opinions on the place of women in American society. Never one to mince words, Doane articulated his views on the “New Woman” of the day frequently and to sizable audiences.

One such occasion was during a graduation ceremony at St. Agnes’s School, in downtown Albany, established by Doane for the education of young women from throughout New York and beyond. For the anti-suffragist Doane, the idea of women gaining the right to vote was emblematic of a larger danger to “Americanism.”

He told the graduates that “when constitutions have been altered to disturb the equipoise of the relation between man and woman, when motherhood shall be replaced by mismanaged offices ... when the assertion of demanded right shall have destroyed the instinctive chivalry of conceded courtesies, woman, as has been well said ‘once the superior has become the equal of man, then the whirlwind of some violent political reaction will be gathered in tears sowing the wind in the mad joy of the Petroleuse of the French revolutions.’”

What Bishop Doane did not know is that his stern warning “against the danger and delusion of the hour,” posed by those embracing the “new woman,” would quietly but firmly be contradicted by the unusual pioneering life of his own grandniece.

Just fifteen years after his 1913 passing, Anna Perkins, M.D. would, in the heartland of his own diocese, subvert “the equipoise in the relation between man and woman.”

If Bishop Doane’s call for keeping women at home illuminated one end of the spectrum of opinion on gender roles, his contemporary in Albany’s elite circles, Edmund Niles Huyck, articulated a more moderate position on issues involving reform and social betterment.

One of six children, Edmund “Ted” Huyck attended Albany Academy and Williams College. As an adult Huyck spent most weekdays at his Albany residence near Washington Park, but his lifelong love of Rensselaerville and its people never waned.

Huyck’s Rensselaerville birth in 1866 came just as a post-Civil War economic boom was getting underway. Soldiers returning home to the village witnessed a busy gristmill and sawmill, each powered by the Ten Mile Creek that flowed from Lake Myosotis. Some speculated that this waterpower might enable Rensselaerville to become a significant city.

Encouraged by this prospect, Edmund’s father, Francis “Frank” Huyck, partnered with Henry Waterbury to establish a factory there that produced woolen blankets and felts used in the manufacture of paper.

Ted Huyck often recalled his idyllic Rensselaerville boyhood from a seemingly golden age. In addition to swimming, boating, fishing, and ice-skating on local ponds and lakes, Huyck fondly remembered his regular attendance at the Presbyterian church, the excitement of the annual arrival of the circus, the appearance of a traveling daguerreotype photographer, and the oration of an out-of-town guest speaker each July 4th, followed by fireworks.

Francis Brown describes Huyck’s many lifelong friendships from the village, saying “it was the closeness of relationships in the mountain village that endowed him with the depth of human understanding that became his distinction.”

In 1907 Edmund Niles Huyck assumed leadership of the family felt company, which by this time had relocated to Albany where rail and water transportation were available. As New York’s paper industry grew, so did the felt business, and Huyck’s company, Kenwood Mills, also enjoyed substantial sales in Japan, Europe, Mexico, and Canada.

Huyck gave generously of his wealth and talents to both Rensselaerville and Albany. A little-recognized Huyck legacy is the major urban redesign project he undertook with James Perkins, the cousin of Dr. Perkins’s father, to completely remake Albany’s main thoroughfare, State Street.

Even more important was Huyck’s central role in transforming Albany Medical College and Albany Hospital. Starting as a board member in 1908, Huyck was instrumental in the 1915 recruitment of Harvard Medical School faculty member Dr. Thomas Ordway to become dean of the college. Together they decided that Albany Medical College should adopt and even go beyond the recommendations of the Flexner Report on Medical Education, which had been scathing in its assessment of the college and its teaching practices.

Over more than two decades, Huyck and Ordway improved Albany Medical College’s standards through establishment of formal cooperative linkages with Union College and General Electric. Huyck and Ordway also led efforts to build an endowment fund, as well as to expand bed space in what became Albany Medical Center.

Huyck’s biography notes, “Seldom a day passed that he and Ordway were not in conference or communication.” Only months before Dr. Anna Perkins wrote to inquire about the prospects of relocating to the Helderbergs, Huyck had given a speech to potential donors in New York City stressing that “one of the most important social, economic and medical problems of the next two decades will be the rural medical problem.”

“Dr. Perkins, why did you want to practice in the country?” asked Rensselaerville author John Palmer Gavit in late 1930. It was his second attempt to interview “Dr. Anna,” the new young lady doctor who was half his age and less than two years into her new country life.

The first time Gavit drove the seven miles from his home in Rensselaerville to her office in Westerlo, he arrived at the moment an emergency delivery call had come in, and he was told very directly by Dr. Perkins, “Nothing doing this morning — sorry — you’ll have to come again. I’ve just had a hurry up baby call — ten miles. You know, babies can’t wait.

The remarkable interview that later took place was conducted during a time when the weight of the Great Depression was spreading across the nation. It was granted reluctantly, and only after Gavit invoked the theme of Huyck’s article about the need to encourage talented young people to become country doctors.

There was no explicit mention of Thoreau or transcendentalism in Dr. Perkins’s response to Gavit’s first question about a city person aspiring to be a rural physician. “I knew little about the country, except that it must need what I wanted to do. I knew there could be no money or fame in it, that I would be poor; but I wanted to go somewhere where I was needed. Mr. Huyck’s article pictured exactly what I was looking for.”

Anna’s first visit to the Helderbergs came only a few weeks after Huyck’s invitation. Late on a summer day in 1928, she boarded a Manhattan steamboat for the eight-hour ride up the Hudson River to Albany. Seen as the gateway to North America for millions of immigrants in search of a better life, the Hudson was for Anna a gateway to the life she desired in the service of higher ideals.

Describing the voyage decades later, she recalled traveling on a hot and humid night. Seeking a fresh breeze, Anna left her stateroom and stayed on the upper deck throughout the evening. Her trip northward brought back fond childhood memories of a time she had vacationed with her maternal grandparents near Mount Kisco, in Westchester County.

She had wonderful memories of her days there, with Grandma Ward reading to her and Ellie, taking long walks, shelling peas, and consuming country corn soup together with rolls smeared with butter and sugar.

This boat ride up the Hudson, far north of Westchester, was the type of adventure Anna Perkins treasured. Characteristically optimistic, but simultaneously a bit apprehensive about what lay ahead, she initially enjoyed the solitude and the breeze.

Later, there was conversation with a deckhand as she shared her sandwich with him. At dawn, Dr. Perkins arrived at the pier in Albany and was soon walking briskly past the Delaware and Hudson Railroad headquarters and the downtown trolley terminal. As the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception came into view, she decided to walk up the hill to Albany Medical College for her first meeting with Dean Thomas Ordway, with whom, at Huyck’s suggestion, she had already corresponded.

Dr. Ordway was twenty-two years older than Dr. Perkins, but they had much in common. Both were from Boston, and had family homes only minutes apart in Jamaica Plain. Ordway graduated from Boston Latin School’s class of 1896 and had subsequently studied on the Harvard campus, completing his medical degree in 1905.

After working at Boston City Hospital and Harvard for four years as a pathologist, he moved to Albany as the first director of Bender Hygienic Laboratory, with a joint professorial appointment at Albany Medical College. Described as “a scholarly person with strong opinions and a desire for academic excellence,” Ordway returned to Harvard in 1911 to become Physician-in-Charge of Huntington Memorial Hospital’s Cancer Commission.

Over the next four years, he directed some of the earliest experimental work in radium therapy. As a polymath and a medical school administrator who frequently criticized over-specialization in the medical profession, Ordway demonstrated his wide breadth of knowledge with original publications on leukemia, typhoid, tuberculosis, and pneumonia; at one point he even investigated the subject of “fireproof wood.” In 1915 Ordway had returned to Albany as Dean of Albany Medical School.

Aside from their common roots in Boston, something else made this first meeting between Dr. Thomas Ordway and Dr. Anna Perkins most congenial. Dr. Perkins was much impressed to learn that Thomas Ordway’s older sister was the pioneering Boston psychiatrist Dr. Mabel Dyer Ordway.

A 1905 graduate of the Tufts Medical School, during her postgraduate years Mabel Ordway had studied at clinics in Berlin, London, Paris, and Munich. Her publications and position as secretary of the American Psychiatric Association made Mabel a nationally recognized and much respected figure.

All this boded well for Anna Perkins’s initial visit to Rensselaerville, where Thomas Ordway and his family maintained a home on Pond Hill Road, within easy walking distance of Albany Medical School board chairman Edmund Niles Huyck’s residence. Ordway frequently had a chauffeur, but on the day he and Perkins drove out New York Route 85 to Rensselaerville, Ordway was at the wheel. As described by John Gavit:

“On a dripping foggy day of most depressing aspect she [Anna Perkins] went up from New York to make her choice. Such days turn a sour face to the visitor in those hills; but her determination was of too high voltage to be deterred by any such resistance. She even had a swim that day in the beautiful Lake Myosotis at Rensselaerville. And she is the sort that looks through all kinds of clouds to the abiding sun.”

Anna Perkins’s tenacity during her initial visit to Rensselaerville on an afternoon with overcast skies reminded Gavit of Anna’s eighteenth century relative, Abraham Davenport, who on that famous “Dark Day” had insisted that the Connecticut legislature remain in session: “Easy to imagine something in the quiet, upward-looking pluck with which this brown-eyed girl (hardly yet out of her twenties) fearlessly challenges the elements, and the Reaper.”

After checking into the Catalpa House and taking a swim in Lake Myosotis, Dr. Perkins would have naturally stopped by Dr. Ordway’s home to meet his wife, Mary, and son, Thomas Jr. There she would have seen the black horse Ordway frequently took on long rides, and she might even have ridden around the racetrack directly behind his white farmhouse, or along the nearby trail leading to Lincoln Pond.

It was not unusual for Dr. Ordway to make emergency house calls in the surrounding area on weekends, another possible topic of conversation. By the time Anna checked out of Catalpa House a few days later, she had made her decision. Dr. Perkins was convinced; she had found her own Walden.

****

— In Rensselaerville at the historical society meeting on Aug. 18 at the Rensselaerville firehouse; the book talk starts at 7 p.m., preceded by a potluck dinner at 6 p.m.; and

— In Westerlo, at the historical society meeting on Sept. 30 from 2 to 4 p.m. at Westerlo Town Hall.

“A Good and Noble Thing: The Pioneering Life and Service of Anna Ward Perkins, M.D.” is available locally at Kelly's Pharmacy in Greenville, at the P&L Deli in Westerlo, at the Rensselaerville Library or Kuhar Family Farm Restaurant in Rensselaerville, at Kim's West Winds Diner in Potter Hollow, and at The Book House at Stuyvesant Plaza in Guilderland.

 

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