Podcast: Gerard A. Finin, discusses Hilltown doctor Anna Perkins

The Enterprise — Sean Mulkerrin
Gerard A. Finin has written a book about Dr. Anna Ward Perkins, a Helderberg icon, weaving reminiscences of Hilltown residents who knew her with scholarly research about her life and times. Finin, who grew up in Rensselaerville, was a patient of Perkins and now teaches at Cornell. 



00:00 Hello, this is Melissa, Hale-Spencer, the editor of The Altamont Enterprise here today with an author who has written a fascinating book and his name is Jerry Finn and the book is about a Helderberg icon. Many of our listeners are familiar with Dr Anna Perkins. So welcome Jerry. Thank you Melissa. Thank you for bringing her to life in such detail. I'd love to just start by hearing  how you came up with this idea. Why did you write this book?

00:38 Well, uh, of course Dr Perkins was our family physician when I was young and then as I grew into adulthood I got to know her a bit better through the rents there, bill ambulance and other other encounters. Uh, but, uh, I had always considered her to be someone who is just a fascinating person and I never really understood how she became the iconic person that she was in the suburbs in terms of her background because she was a bit reluctant to, to reveal very much about herself and a back and maybe 20, 13. I was with some friends, uh, in Rensler Avila. Uh, I was on vacation and we were having a beer and, uh, we just started talking about our memories of Dr Perkins and it really got me thinking maybe it was the time to try a biography of her because most of the people who knew her best, we're fast fading from the scene, you know, the people who were already in their eighties and nineties.

01:48 So I wasn't sure if it was feasible. But, uh, when I got back to the University of Hawaii, which is, uh, we're, uh, I was working at, at the time, I went to on line and discovered a few articles about, written by her mother. And those were fascinating because they made references to her childhood. And then, uh, there was a gentleman from a camp casts and rents there Ville who used to have Sunday afternoon conversations with her. And he did that for about eight years and compiled a manuscript that one of my sister's friends April Austin had. And so I took a look at that and there were some very tantalizing clues. And so, uh, I still wasn't sure what would be available or what would it be possible. It wasn't as if I came across a trunk of papers, but a little by little, the pieces started to come together and then I just made a call from out of the blue to Harvard law school, which is where I discovered her nephew was teaching.

02:57 And uh, they said that Professor Mansfield had retired and wasn't doing too well, but that I could contact his wife by email. And so the secretary at Harvard law school gave me that and I just wrote on a note saying I was embarking on this project and they were not only supportive but very helpful by putting me in touch with a couple of nieces in California. Uh, so it was a combination of things. But, uh, as like I didn't do well I'd have to say, and I'm not saying this just because I'm, I'm here today, the Ultima and enterprise when it was an essential part of this, primarily because it's the only source I know of that details what was happening in the hill towns, uh, back to the early 19 hundreds. And so the fact that through the Guilderland Library, one could access that from anywhere in the world and search by name made it extremely helpful in terms of just getting a sense of what her life was like, what it was like when she arrived.

04:05 You know, there are some other good newspapers that I use to a lesser extent. The Boston Globe was helpful. The New York Times was helpful, but it was really the Ultima and enterprise that was the core of the story and those, those early years. And then I found some family papers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. So I stopped there and spent a couple of days just pouring over this, a rich archive of material from the ward, Perkins family. And it turned out there were 60 letters that a young, a perkins as a 14 year old and 15 year old girl had written from London Bastow, Boston grandfather, her grandfather. And that was like a gold mine really. So it wasn't as if I sat down and had a blueprint and laid everything out on the table, uh, in advance. Uh, it was a more iterative process. And uh, then of course a huge number of people in Western low and rents Louisville helped. Uh, I called, you know, former state troopers. I, I talked to a lot of former patients. I talked to a nurse that worked with her for many years. Uh, June Sherman, Bob Diedrich, Qur'an, the store in western low for many years was also essential. And I must have talked to him. He's down in Florida now for about eight hours on the phone, but he was just a full of detailed information that really was helpful. So it was like a detective story in some ways. Yes.

05:37 Sherlock Holmes. And what's so wonderful about the book is you have this meticulous sort of literary paper research going on and you layered in with these personal reminiscences, including your own that just make her come to life in a way that a more academic book wouldn't. But before we delve into her life, which is of course going to be the heart of our conversation, I just like to take a little side trip, I'm sure your life so that people understand who you are and from the book it sounds like she was kind of instrumental because she recommended you for the Peace Corps and that kind of set the course of your life in some ways. So just tell us a little about who you are before we jump back to.

06:22 I was born in Albany, but grew up in rensselaer villa, went to Greenville Elementary School in Greenville high school. Rensler Avila was a fantastic place to be raised. I always think I was so fortunate in that regard. And

06:35 yes, because the book gives a real sense of that, you know, you have a sense of identity in your town and who the figures were, not just the doctor, but the fire chief and these various people that are more suburban upbringing stone that I think is

06:49 the richness of growing up in the hill, the burgs. And uh, there were all sorts of fascinating characters, people who had great wisdom and who were willing to talk to a young kid. And then the volunteer organizations and Rensler Phil, we're all so very important to me. So, uh, the fire company, the volunteer ambulance, the library, you know, those are the institutions that really, uh, make villages work, uh, for, for everyone and just make the quality of life so rich. So, uh, after, uh, growing up in Rensselaer Ville, I went to Suny Albany, the university at Albany as it's now called. And uh, when I finished I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, but the peace corps was something that was attractive to me because I just thought that I needed to broaden my horizons a little bit. And I hadn't traveled really very much outside of New York state, uh, so I asked Dr Perkins if she would write a letter of recommendation for me for my application.

07:52 And it was a very, it wasn't an easy thing that was an eight page or nine page kind of application recommendation form. And she said sure she would. And uh, then once I was accepted and got through my training, I was in the northern Philippines and she started writing to me and it was just an incredible thing to think that she would take time out of her extremely busy schedule to write these two and three page letters about what was going on back home. And they were very welcomed because I was really homesick. A rensler Vivian.

08:28 And that sort of launched your career?

08:30 Yes, that's right. So, so the next 30 years we were really devoted to working in the Asia Pacific region. I came back and studied in the Southeast Asia program at Cornell and then got a one year appointment at the East West Center on the University of Hawaii campus in Honolulu. And that one year turned into 30 years. So I've only recently come back a few months ago and you're teaching at Cornell and then I'll be teaching at Cornell in the fall. Yeah. Getting ready for my classes right now.

09:01 Well now we can plant into Dr Perkins so you can't in this podcast, put her life in a nutshell. But if you could just kind of describe the arc of it because what I found so astounding and I only saw her the distance. I didn't know her. Um, but by the time I arrived here, she was an elderly woman, hugely admired in the community, but I had no sense of her Boston Brahmin routes or her sort of a pedigree of her family. So if you could just kind of give us the arc of her life is, as you've described it.

09:45 Well, as far as I know, very few people had any sense of what her, her pedigree was or how her, how she was a descendant of a Charles Carroll of Carrollton or a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, or really from one of the most illustrious and distinguished families in, in Boston. Almost every single institution in Boston is connected with the Perkins family in some way, and some of them continue to thrive. The Perkins Institute for the blind, for example, their connection with Harvard University, uh, was, uh, over over centuries really, uh, but she didn't want all of that to really be known. I think she, she wanted to just be seen as, as an individual. So she came from this illustrious background already speaking five languages, uh, and probably one of the best, uh, reared and educated women in America, uh, and had the idea in mind that she wanted a country life and I think she was drawn during her college years, uh, to the works of Emerson, Emerson and Thoreau.

10:56 And, uh, when she had the opportunity to come to the Hilda Burgs, she just found Western low rents, Taylorville Burn Greenville to be far superior to the other places she had lived, such as Boston or London or New York, and said, this is the good life here. And there's some, there are some practical skills that I have and I'd like to devote my life to this. And as we all know, that's what she, she really did. Uh, but uh, what I see in terms of her, her life is if you look at what she was doing as an undergraduate at Radcliffe. So she had already studied at a convent school in London. Uh, she was already a very erudite person to be sure. And she was involved in everything. So she was captain of the Harvard basketball team. She played field hockey. She was in the Catholic Club, the French club, the coral club.

11:51 I mean, the list is amazing. All the while doing a degree in chemistry because she realized that was important for medicine. And uh, then she, she got to Columbia College of physicians and surgeons because she was not as a woman allowed to even apply to Harvard medical school even though our family had given endowed chairs and given them buildings and so forth. So she went to Columbia and did very, very well. They are graduated with honors, but little by little started to narrow her focus so that by the time she got to western low, it was really about being a physician, a spending as much time as she could afford with nature and, uh, becoming a, uh, local health person. I think those are the things that she really focused on. So, uh, as far as I know, she never played basketball in the suburbs.

12:45 She tended to Snowshoe, she could into the snow shoe, a shoe,

12:50 even in church, you know, she, she was never a reader or she never was a eucharistic minister. Uh, she, she narrowed our focus to say medicine is what's needed and what I do well and, and, and free time. She worked, uh, with Susanne Langer a little bit on some of her books, so she continue to read, continue to listen to classical music, all of those kinds of things. But I would say a 85 to 95 percent of her time was really devoted to caring for the people of the Hell de Bergs never turning away a patient, never sending out a bill in 65 years.

13:32 Yeah, that part was astounding. Her dedication to service, but also her. She said in one quote there, I wasn't after favorite fortune, I mean the idea that she didn't really pay attention to money at all, that it was just kind of a peripheral thing and there was also a section where you looked at Maryville and you described it almost as a caste system. You might've even used that word where you noted that there were these very upper crust summer people. And actually she came there because of this notice from Mr Hyde. And yet she never made herself out to be part of an upper crust. She, you know, had friendships that went through all levels of society without kind of even acknowledging or recognizing that sort of a caste system.

14:26 I think she avoided that. She obviously could have been at the apex of Rensler Ville Society and gone to all of the high teas and gone to all of the cocktail parties and those things. Uh, she knew how to play that scene very well. But, uh, that wasn't who she was or what she thought was important. And so she, uh, would generally avoid those kinds of social invitations or if she went, she'd go for five minutes, say to people and then depart, uh, and uh, you know, I, I think, uh, she just saw what was important in her life and uh, being part of that caste system or being part of that social scene meant very little to her.

15:06 And another thing that surprised me, I had falsely assumed that she might be described as a feminist because here she was someone who was timing from going to Harvard medical school. Even applying, as you say, graduated from Columbia, did her residency by all accounts very well. But it wasn't like Bellevue was going to be hiring her and struck out. And I even got thinking about the hilltown doctors. There's Dr Mack now. There's Dr Emani. There was Dr Smith, all women. And I had thought of her without knowing anything about her as someone who must've been a feminist, to have struck out on her own and to have come to this sort of wild territory. Many people without plumbing or electricity in their homes. But really, your book makes very, very clear that she was not, and when she gave a speech or maybe it was a written account, I can't remember, years later to her class and describing the life of a country doctor she used, he not, she and she made a statement at the desk when I read it, that I'm really, this was a sort of unusual circumstance and not to be pushed for the future. So what do you make of all that?

16:30 Well, uh, that was also new to me. I mean, I, uh, Dr Perkins was not the kind of individual that you would go up to an approach and say, are you a feminist? But it became increasingly clear to me, uh, as I, as I got into the research that she considered, she was by inclination quite conservative and considered her case to be a special case of a, of a, of a woman who had gone on to have a professional career. So she did think that a women should be the exception in medicine. And as we now know, more than 50 percent of the students in, in, in medical school are, are, are women. I would say on the other hand, that she was always open to arguments to the contrary. A man in a far different light than women today would, would see themselves. Uh, the other thing I guess I would say about that is that over over time she proved for many other women what was possible. So in some ways she was an exemplar of a feminist because she led life that she wanted to lead based on her own hard work and convictions. And so I think many women looked up to her or looked up to some of her colleagues and said, wow, you know, if I can live a life like Dr Perkins, wouldn't that be a wonderful thing? And I think she would have encouraged that. Um, she wanted to be known as a physician, not as a lady doctor.

18:15 Yes. That, that's very clear in your book and good for her on that point. There's just so many things in the book that surprise you both for me as a reader, both in terms of how quickly not just medicine changed, but you have like an arch of the changing culture in the hill towns. I mean, when she arrived in 1928, which doesn't seem that long ago, just in terms of human life, she was dealing with a very rural agrarian society, um, and felt as you describe her not wanting to force sort of modern public health use on people for fear of alienating them, but yet being very concerned with sort of raising standards of living where she could and working within the culture she found herself in. And then by the time she was the icon in her nineties, so much had changed about the hill towns. Do you have any thoughts on what parts she had in that or how that evolved?

19:26 Well, she certainly believed that individuals should, should make their own choice. And so she was someone who was very reluctant unless it involved medical matters, to suggest to others what they should do or what they might be interested in. Um, when she first came, she realized that as a woman there was some acceptance and embrace, but there were other people who said, how could a woman possibly be a good physician? And so she had to win those folks over, uh, gradually. Uh, so I think once she had this broad acceptance in the community and as she grew older, she would start to make our views known on, on certain matters that, uh, she was reticent about in the early years. For example, when it came to deer hunting, most people who are alive today will tell you, she was very much against deer hunting, never against deer hunters, but against the activity you're hunting.

20:31 And that she would, uh, you know, confront people in the woods and tell them to go home. She would blow our horn, uh, when she saw people hunting to a scare the deer. And, uh, that's not something she was doing in 19, 28 a. So she sort of gradually, I think, uh, uh, became more assertive over time. And in that regard, on the other hand, she never was a overtly political or partisan. And, uh, even when, you know, she might a scold somebody for hunting in the afternoon and if that person called at midnight and said they needed help, she'd be there in a matter of minutes. So, uh, she was able to always, I think a separate her professional practice from her, her personal beliefs. And at the same time, uh, she was certainly not afraid to say what she thought about certain certain matters, like, like deer hunting or, you know, if people were snowmobiling, kids were doing things that were unsafe, she would pull into their driveway and scold them and tell them to get into the house. Uh, there were some stories people told me about kids being out on very, very cold days. And if she was going through in her four wheel drive jeep, she would stop and say, now you get inside. It's too cold to be out. Uh, so. But that was in the latter years and the early years she had to be, I think a bit, a bit more gentle. Uh, and, and her motto was always just to, to give all that she possibly could to her, her patients. Even if that meant, you know, going through the day on two or three hours of sleep

22:17 as some of the parts. I just laughed out loud there. You have one description of how she wasn't big on formalities. She wouldn't, um, you know, when she picked up the phone, she didn't say she, if somebody had something they needed to just hang up the phone and she go. Is that something you observed yourself as a kid? I mean, what happened with this idea that she burst into your house one day telling your mother she was going to take down the sign in the front yard. It was a for sale sign for your house. It did. Did she do that? Did your parents, did your family move?

22:51 Yes. So, so my, my mother was working at all that any of the time and she and my father wasn't well, so she had to drive each day from Rensselaer Ville and that became quite onerous during the winter months. So after five or six years of doing that commute, she said, I think we have to move as much as we love Rensler bill, we have to move into town. And so they moved into to del Mar and Dr Perkins, of course, liked having families in the village. And so her way of saying that she was sad to see the for sale sign was to knock on the door and say I'm going to get my ax and chop that sign down. There were many, many sort of interesting aspects to her personality. Uh, another person told me about her way of telling a person to stop smoking was to say if God wanted you to smoke, he would have put a chimney on your head. So, you know, there, there are many, many stories more than I could include in the book actually.

23:55 Are there things, you know, you knew her. Are there things that surprised you in your research that you didn't have an inkling of as someone who knew her growing up? I mean, were they?

24:08 Yes, for sure. And I think the first, the book is divided into part one and part two, so it's pre 19, 28 and post 1928 when she arrived in the Helda burgs. And I didn't know much of anything about that early period of her life up to her up to age 29. She was born in 1899. So you know, where her parents, uh, raised her on Perkins Street.

24:39 Yeah. If it weren't, you would never think the second half is coming, you know.

24:46 And uh, you know, then to see the kind of high school she went to, what it was, what she was like when she was in England, all of that was brand new to me and I think it's new to most people because she just was a reluctant in a sort of New England style way to say very much about herself or her, her background. But that's the part, to be honest, that I found the most fascinating because it really, I think, help to provide an understanding of how she became the incredible woman that she, she was and what her father was like, what her mother was like, what it was like to be in the household when these powerful women from around Boston would come. Amy Lowell, smoking cigars in their parlor while she played the piano, you know, uh, these kinds of things really gave me a much richer sense of, of what her upbringing was like.

25:43 And also too, if you could talk about at the other end of the book, not the first half, these deep, deep lifelong friendships that she did, that she had one with the doctor whose name is escaping me right now, and one with Susan Lang. Or just tell us a little about that.

26:03 So these were two women that she met while she was at Radcliffe. And I think in the case of Helen Taussig, they acted on the stage together. Back in those days, men and women couldn't act on the stage together so that when they put on productions in French or in English, uh, they would, uh, play play different roles. And the friendship ran very deep with Helen Taussig. They traveled out to California for a semester. Taussig father was a very prominent economist at Harvard and, uh, according to biography, she wanted to get away from the fame of her father. And so she went there and then subsequently it came back and went to medical school at Johns Hopkins and was instrumental, one of the most important people in the founding of the field of pediatric cardiology. Uh, and became the first woman professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, I believe. And she left everything in her will to Dr.

27:05 Park every penny. Went to Dr Perkins, uh, later on, uh, Susanne Langer knew a bit more about this area because her family had a big house, a, they were a wealthy New York City family, a big house, a up in Bolton landing and Lake George. And uh, she had a cabin without electricity or running water in Ulster County in the catskills where she used to write. And so in terms of the amount of face to face contact, she saw Susanne Langer much more frequently than she saw Helen Taussig. Both of them though, were entirely different personalities, different beliefs. Uh, as I, as I note in the book, a Susanne Langer was an atheist and a Dr. Perkins was a very devout Catholic. So she had friendships with people who were very much different than she was. But these endured for such a long period. And when Susanne Langer was writing on a philosophical questions, really deep questions and got stuck, she would take all of her note cards and her cello and hop in the station wagon, put her canoe on top of the station wagon, come over to western low and spend several days usually talking with Dr Perkins.

28:24 What is this a great scene in your book? And they have these index cards with ideas on him shuffling their ideas and tell us also too about this wonderful little concert that they.

28:37 Well, classical music was always something that I think was very important in the perkins family going back generations and, uh, they had been instrumental in starting the Boston music, Boston symphony and the Boston Music Hall and all of these things. Uh, but, uh, and Dr Perkins older brother Francis had studied classical music at Cambridge, uh, now and he became a critic and he was the chief music critic for the New York Herald Tribune for many years. But for Dr Perkins, you know, one of the greatest treats was to have a, a opportunity to hear a live classical music. So Susanne Langer was a very talented a cello player. And uh, Bob Deidrich was a self taught organist. He, uh, in addition to running the store and being very active in the fire company and ambulance used to do music for various churches around the area, uh, for their, as their Sunday organist. And so, uh, Dr Perkins would be the audience of one while Susanne Langer and Bob Perform various pieces for her after the patients had left probably at 9:30 or 10:00 at night.

30:01 I just love that part of your book. I just love that. Well, and another thing we haven't touched on, we're kind of over our time, but I just want to get in if you could talk a little about her love of nature and she shared that with Susan Langer, but also just a little about that, but I think

30:17 was something that was very profound and a consistent both with her spiritual beliefs as well as her. The way in which she felt all life was sacred and maybe the best way I could sum that up would just be to tell this brief story that I got from Ken, Brian and rents their bill. So he installed furnaces and heating systems and one day was in a basement of an old house and something flew into his ear and no matter how hard he tried to get it out, it just kept fluttering around. So finally he couldn't concentrate on his work. He took a chance, drove over to western Lowe and Dr Perkins was at home and no appointment, but she said, come in and she got out her tweezers and reached in and was able to extract this small mouth and instead of crushing it or putting it in a tissue paper or something, she gently held it and walk to the door and released it so it could fly away. It's a great story. No charge to the patient.

31:24 So who should read this book?

31:27 Well, Gosh, I'd be gratified if you know anyone from the Hilda burgs would read it. I think many of her former patients would certainly enjoy it, but even young people who are sort of struggling with how to think about their future life and there are certainly some important lessons there I think to be learned that way. Uh, I think it would be of great interest to students of medicine and, uh, certainly, uh, held a Burg history and people who might be interested. I don't go into it in great depth, but in the history of feminism and how various waves of women had thought about feminism and equality in different ways.

32:13 Thank you. This has been really exciting and

32:18 thank you. Thank you. That's really great. Thanks for your support.



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