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Women Of The (Early) Years

June 6, 1906


At the turn of the twentieth century, American women faced enormous difficulties in obtaining a medical education and earning an MD. These hurdles were manifold.

In general, women seeking careers outside the home were frowned upon, and the society of the time viewed women as being intellectually inferior to men. But in the particular case of medical school, the obstacles were multiplied. Medicine was then almost universally considered a man’s profession, and women were thought of as too “soft” to undergo the rigors of a medical education and subsequent physician’s practice.

Consequently, the few women who attended medical school in the early 20th century matriculated at largely male-attended and male-taught institutions where the atmosphere toward them was often hostile.

In Kansas, getting over these barriers was just the beginning. Until 1905, when the University of Kansas launched its four-year School of Medicine, the only MD-granting institutions were proprietary medical schools run by private physicians on a for-profit basis.

There were a number of these schools in the Kansas City area, as well as one in Topeka. Each school tended to offer the same classes taught by the same instructors over and over, so medical students often migrated from school to school, over a three- to four-year period, in search of new courses. The proprietary schools were often housed in dreary old buildings, and the students usually worked under unsanitary conditions, especially in the dissection and anatomy labs.

Yet even in these circumstances, a handful of women persevered to become MDs. Their number grew once KU established its full-fledged School of Medicine. By 1920, a full dozen women had earned their medical degrees from the University of Kansas.

The first two were Mildred Curtis and Melvia Fairetta Avery. They paved the way for ten other women who would complete a KU MD over the next fourteen years. These included Marie A. Green in 1908, Charlotte Kaulbach in 1910, Katherine Hardingberg Elting and Bertha Olive Anderson in 1911, Minuette S. Mundell in 1914, Mary Edna Darland Sippel in 1915, Bertha Olivia Schwein Orman in 1916, and Ruth Patrick Spiegel, Agnes Hancock Hertzler Huebert, and Rose Alma Riste in 1920.

Mildred Curtis was born on July 21, 1881 in Geneva, Kansas, a small community northwest of Iola. After her birth, the family moved to Neosho Falls, Kansas, where Curtis was raised. She entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a proprietary school in Kansas City, Kansas, in September 1902.

One year later, Melvia Fairetta Avery, of Wakefield, Kansas, also enrolled in that school. The College of Physicians and Surgeons, affiliated with Kansas City University since 1894, was one of the few that would admit female students at that time.

Melvia Avery was born in Milford, Kansas, on January 11, 1879, the daughter of George and Eliza Avery. She attended Kansas State Agricultural College at Manhattan (present-day Kansas State University) from 1895-99, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree. Her thesis was titled “The Woman of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Avery worked as a teacher for four years before moving to the Kansas City area to attend medical school. She entered the College of Physicians and Surgeons in September 1903.

In 1905, the College of Physicians and Surgeons joined with two other proprietary schools – the Kansas City Medical College and the Medico-Chirurgical College – in a merger that formed the four-year University of Kansas School of Medicine. Students already attending these three private colleges automatically became matriculates of the newly formed medical school. Therefore, Curtis and Avery both completed their fourth year of medical education at the new institution, and on June 6, 1906, became the first women graduates of the KU School of Medicine

KU’s 1906 Jayhawker proclaimed about Avery, “She is good-natured, and knows a good deal of medicine for a Senior. The only fault she has is ‘being a woman.’” About Curtis the yearbook declared, “She has done her share in upholding the brilliancy of the feminine portion of the class, and proven herself worthy the respect of all.”

Curtis received her license to practice medicine and surgery in the State of Kansas on June 11, 1906. An affidavit signed by two physicians acquainted with Curtis accompanied her application and stated “that we know her to be of good moral and professional character and entirely worthy of confidence.” Avery, however, chose to undergo a one-year internship at General Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, so did not apply for her Kansas license until October of 1907.

Avery practiced medicine in the Milford and Clay Center area for six years. In 1913, with her sister Bernice, a practical nurse, Avery packed up her household goods and traveled by train to Lander, Wyoming, where they joined another sister and her family. Working as a “horse and buggy doctor” with her sister Bernice at her side, Avery became locally respected as a compassionate physician.

Although she eventually purchased a car, Avery found the horse and buggy more efficient and convenient in the rough and hilly mountain terrain. The two rather portly women had never quite mastered the art of hitching their horse “Old Pet” to the buggy, so their young nephew, Raymond Chapman, would see to that chore every day.

Avery specialized in the care of premature babies, and in the treatment of blood poisoning, a very common and dangerous threat in those days. Her cure for blood poisoning consisted of soaking the infected area in a very hot solution of Epsom salts and water for twenty minutes, then repeating the procedure until all of the poison was drawn out.

The two unmarried sisters became engaged in local religious and civic affairs. Melvia Avery was very active in the local First Congregational Church, and served as president of its Ladies Aid Society and as a Sunday school teacher. When Fremont County and the Episcopal Church collaborated to build the first large medical facility in Lander, Bishop Randall Hospital, she worked tirelessly to help furnish and equip the structure.

After a little more than four years in Lander, Melvia Avery fell ill. She died from an abscessed liver November 20, 1917, with her sister Bernice at her side. Her body was returned to her hometown of Wakefield, Kansas, where she was interred in the family plot of the town’s cemetery.

In contrast to Avery, Mildred Curtis did not stray from Kansas and spent the entirety of her career in the Sunflower State. In 1906, she set up her medical office in Iola, Kansas, and practiced there for nearly fifty years. Specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, she served on the staff of Allen County Hospital. Curtis was never married. Quiet and unassuming throughout her life, little remains in the historical record about her long-time service to the Iola community.

Mildred Curtis died at Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott, of complications from gall bladder disease on October 4, 1959. She was buried in the cemetery in Geneva, Kansas. Her sole survivor was a half brother. After her death, Curtis’s clothes, household items, and personal effects were auctioned off, and her home and other real property sold.

Two years after Avery and Curtis became the first women to earn medical degrees from the University of Kansas, Anna Marie Greene – who went professionally by the name Marie A. Greene – became the third.

Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on August 10, 1874, Greene’s family apparently moved to Kansas at some point during her childhood. She graduated from Topeka High School and matriculated at the University of Kansas in 1903. She received her KU MD in 1908, at the age of 33. A statement regarding Greene in the 1908 Jayhawker yearbook says, “Her loyalty knows no limit; her censure lacked no voice; she has endured much; may her future be brighter.”

Since Greene did not apply for her license to practice medicine in the State of Kansas until 1910, it is possible that she took some post-graduate work elsewhere, most likely at Kansas City’s General Hospital. Those days, most male medical students interned at St. Margaret’s or General, but St. Margaret’s did not allow women medical students. When Greene received her license to practice in 1910, she was living at 515 Division Street in Kansas City, Kansas.

In June of 1914, Greene was appointed assistant physician at Kansas State University. While a letter from the acting college president Julius T. Willard recommended Greene’s appointment, prominent Manhattan physician, Dr. Belle Little, when approached by the board for a reference, “declined absolutely to consider it.” The appointment stood, however, and on September 14, 1914, the announcement was made that Greene would head the physical examinations of women students. She also gave lectures to the women students.

By March of 1917, the subject matter of Greene’s lectures came into question, resulting in a petition, “numerously” signed by students and “others,” requesting that she be allowed to continue lecturing on “sex problems.” The petition was submitted to the Student Council. The Council forwarded the petition to the College Board requesting favorable action.

The Board then referred the issue to the incoming Board of Administration (the state body that then performed the oversight and governance function similar to the present-day Kansas Board of Regents) for deliberation. The Board apparently did not support Greene, however, for in June her resignation was accepted with her final date of employment given as August 31, 1917.

The students then submitted another petition to the committee on physical education asking for the reappointment of Greene as associate physician “with the privilege of giving her series of lectures on sex morality” as an elective. This, too, was denied, and the issue finally ended in May 1918.

Greene returned to Kansas City, Kansas, and opened a private practice in obstetrics at 814 Quindaro Boulevard. She remained in practice until 1931. Greene spent most of her retirement years living in Kansas City, Missouri. She died of a heart attack on November 30, 1954, in El Paso, Texas, at the age of 80.

Very little is known about the life and career of Charlotte (Lottie) Kaulbach, the fourth woman graduate of the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, on February 12, 1882, she began attending medical school at the University of Kansas in 1906. Kaulbach (her married name) received her MD at the age of 28 in 1910.

In the Jayhawker yearbook of that year, Kaulbach was described as showing “more thoughtfulness and kindness toward clinical patients than any of us.” [She is] “always ready to assist whomever she can. She attends to her own business – and expects the boys to do the same.”

Kaulbach received her license to practice medicine in Kansas on June 1, 1910. She had married Joseph I. Kaulbach, MD, presumably before she entered medical school. Joseph, born in Germany in 1862, received his medical degree from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1891. In 1912, the couple was in practice at 632 Minnesota Avenue, Kansas City, Kansas. By 1917, the Kaulbachs had moved to Kansas City, Missouri.

From 1918 to 1921, they practiced medicine in the frontier town of Carter, Montana. However, it appears their personal and professional relationships diverged, as state court records indicate the couple divorced and Joseph remarried in 1918. He left Carter – which has since become a ghost town – around 1924, and moved to Fort Benton, Montana, where he set up a private practice with his own pharmacy next door. He later served as a Montana state senator for most of the 1930s, and spent his retirement years in Spokane, Washington, where he died in March of 1960 at the age of 101.

The historical record for Charlotte Kaulbach is much sparser. Her activities from 1921-1969 remain unknown. A notation of “August 14, 1969,” written on a KU Registrar’s Index Card, probably is the date of her death.

Similarly limited information is available about Kathryn “Kate” Hardinberg Elting, the fifth woman to earn a KU MD. Born in Burdett, Pawnee County, Kansas, on August 2, 1880, she was graduated from Ness City High School in 1897.

It is unclear where and when she obtained her undergraduate education, but she was graduated from the KU School of Medicine in 1911. The 1911 KU yearbook states that she was the author of the book Sleep and Grow Tall. The yearbook also described Elting as “mild and modest, she will make a good ‘Doc.’”

In 1914, Elting was at the State School and Colony in Lincoln, Illinois. The mission of that institution was to train and educate mentally handicapped children, and at one point it housed over 5,000 students and had a staff of nearly 800. In 1916, she moved to the tiny town of Seligman, Missouri. From 1918 to 1922, Elting served at the Florence Infirmary in Florence, North Carolina.

She then returned to Seligman, and the AMA directories for 1923-1925 list her as “not in practice.” She was still in Seligman in 1925, but was no longer licensed to practice medicine in the State of Missouri. After that she disappears from the AMA record.

The only document in Dr. Elting’s student file is an unsigned reply on the back of a 1961 KU Alumni Association invitation to Alumni Week. The notation reads, “Kate Elting isn’t in Springfield any more. She has been gone around 10 or 12 years. There [are] no Eltings here in Springfield. Kate is in Kansas in a home for old people. A mental case. This is three times I have wrote to you about Kate Elting. No use sending mail down here.”

Yet another woman graduate of the KU School of Medicine about whom little is known is Bertha Olive Anderson. Born in Jefferson County, Kansas, May 4, 1883, she apparently moved to Lawrence by 1900-1901 and graduated from Lawrence High School in May 1902.

Anderson matriculated at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1907, and received her medical degree in 1911. A mention of her in the 1911 Jayhawker said, “’Andy’ is a noble woman, and should be awarded a medal for protecting nubbins from this cruel world. [She] will probably be House Physician at Vassar.” Anderson received her certificate to practice medicine in Kansas on June 20, 1911. The license was canceled on October 1, 1933.

Anderson moved to Lincoln, Illinois, where she practiced until 1930. Her office was located at 502 ½ Broadway (the main street in Lincoln at that time.) In 1918 she is listed in the Lincoln City Directory as “County Physician.” She disappears from the city directories and AMA directory after 1929, and died in 1951.

The record is a bit fuller as regards Minuette “Etta” S. Mundell, a 1914 graduate of the KU School of Medicine. Born in Bethany, Missouri, on January 29, 1877, she was raised in Reno County, Kansas. In 1903, she received her state teacher’s certificate from Reno County High School in Hutchinson.

After teaching for four years, she entered the University of Kansas School of Medicine, earning her MD in 1914. She and her husband, Walter N. Mundell, MD, also a KU School of Medicine graduate, set up a general practice in Hutchinson in 1915. In 1920, she took post-graduate courses at Washington University in St. Louis.

Minuette Mundell was a member of Trinity Methodist Church, the American Medical Association, Order of the Eastern Star, Business and Professional Women’s Organization, Altrusa Club, and the American League Auxiliary. During her professional career in Hutchinson, she also served on the staff of Grace Hospital.

The Mundells retired in 1946, and spent six months of the year “sojourning” in southern Texas. Following a long illness, Minuette Mundell died at Grace Hospital in Hutchinson on June 2, 1958, at the age of 81. Although childless, she was survived by three sisters.

A year after Minuette Mundell completed her studies, Mary Edna Darland Sippel became the eighth woman to graduate from the KU School of Medicine.

Born in Barnes City, Iowa, on January 20, 1893, she attended Suersboro High School in 1906, and Oskaloosa High School in 1907, both in Iowa. She attended Grinnell College briefly, matriculated at Oklahoma State University in 1908, and then transferred to the University of Kansas in 1909, receiving her BA degree in 1913, and her MD in 1915.

Following graduation, she moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and married architect Erich Waldmar Sippel. She practiced general medicine in Tulsa for over 50 years, served as the medical examiner for the Frances Willard Girls Home, and was on the staff of St. John’s and St. Francis hospitals.

Mary Edna Sippel was involved in many civic and professional organizations including the Tulsa Business and Professional Womens’ Club, and the Tulsa County Medical Society. Her hobbies included European travel, Oklahoma history, photography, gardening, and music. She had two children and eight grandchildren.

In 1977, after 62 years of practicing medicine, Sippel considered herself only “partly retired.” She died on April 10, 1989, at the age of 96.

In 1916, Bertha Olivia Schwein Orman became the third woman graduate of the Med School in three consecutive years. (Although Orman was apparently her married name, she used Schwein professionally, and went by the unfortunate appellation “B.O. Schwein, MD.”)

Of German descent, Bertha Schwein was born in Randolph, Kansas, on February 15, 1887. She was one of five children, two of whom were killed in the tornado of 1879. After graduating from Randolph High School, Schwein received her BA degree from KU in 1914 and her MD degree in 1916. From 1917 to about 1920 Schwein worked at Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri (precursor to the present-day Children’s Mercy Hospital). By 1923, she was practicing obstetrics in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

The AMA Directory for that year indicates that she had a Fellowship in the American Medical Association. This means that she was a commissioned medical officer of the federal government on active service. While in Sioux Falls, Schwein was on staff at the Moe Hospital, a private “modern” institution that opened in 1924. The departments of the hospital included surgical, dental, obstetrics/gynecology, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, and orthopedics.

Schwein spent the remainder of her medical career in Los Angeles, California. There she specialized in roentgenology from 1925-1926. She remained in Los Angeles, but the AMA directories list her as “out of practice” from 1927 through 1938. By 1940, she was no longer listed. She died in September 1950, according to KU Alumni Association records.

The trio of Ruth Patrick Spiegel, Agnes Hancock Hertzler Huebert, and Rose Alma Riste – all of whom were members of the Class of 1920 – round out the roster of the first dozen women to graduate from the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Ruth Patrick Spiegel was born in Randall, Kansas, on September 13, 1894. She attended Chesebro grade school, graduated from Jewell City High School in 1913, and entered the University of Kansas in 1914. She received her BS degree from KU in 1918, and her MD in 1920. Afterward, she undertook post-graduate training at Women’s Charity Hospital in Boston. She then returned to Kansas and established an office in Randall.

On April 3, 1922, she married William Spiegel. Five children – Ann Elizabeth, William Robert, Mary Ruth, Ralph Louis, and Joyce – were born to that union.

During her career in Randall, Ruth was a member of the Methodist Church, where she taught Sunday school for many years. She was also a correspondent for the local newspaper, the Jewell County Republican, and wrote the column “From the Sidelines.” She was a member of the Kansas Author’s Club, Progressive Study Club, American Medical Association, American Medical Women’s Association, served as Jewell County Health Officer, and was on the staff of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Concordia.

Spiegel died on July 16, 1970, in Concordia, at the age of 75 years. She was survived by three of her children, and eight grandchildren. Internment was at Wallace Cemetery in Randall.

Owing to her famous physician father, Agnes Hancock Hertzler Huebert was perhaps the most notable – and in some ways the most tragic – of the early women graduates of the KU School of Medicine.

Born in Moundridge, Kansas, on February 10, 1895, she was the oldest daughter of Arthur Hertzler, MD, the renowned “Horse and Buggy Doctor,” noted surgeon and pathologist, founder of the Halstead Hospital in Halstead, Kansas, and a Med School faculty member. Given this paternity, Agnes Hertzler probably was destined to become a physician herself.

As a child, Agnes was very inquisitive. Her father once noted that “she swallowed chunks of coal, toys and chicken bones to see if they were good to eat; took her toys apart to see what made them go; sawed her doll in two to see what made it squeak and took the top of the head off to see why it closed its eyes. She wanted to know why things were so.”

As a teenager living in Kansas City, Missouri, with her mother, Dr. Hertzler’s first wife, she graduated from Westport High School, and matriculated at the University of Kansas in 1914, majoring in mathematics. She received her doctor of medicine degree on June 9, 1920. While at KU (both undergraduate and medical school), Agnes was a superb student, excelling in all of her courses. Her future seemed to offer great promise.

After graduation Agnes Hertzler served two years as the assistant to notable KU ophthalmologist E.J. Curran, MD. Demonstrating the same excellence that she had as a student, she quickly became highly respected by both her patients and colleagues. In 1922, she married John C. Huebert, whereupon the couple moved to Halstead. She joined her father’s staff at his hospital, and gave birth to twin boys in 1923.

In November 1925, Agnes Hertzler Huebert suddenly fell ill. She underwent seemingly successful gallbladder surgery, and appeared to be making a complete recovery. But six days after the surgery, on November 27, 1925, she complained to an attending nurse that she was feeling faint. Her father was immediately summoned to her bedside, but she died within fifteen minutes, the victim of a blood clot.

Grief-stricken, Arthur Hertzler wrote, “Time heals most ravages – but not all. Hills torn by torrents, and trees uprooted by storms, are covered over by new [growth] and to the casual eye seem to be as yore. But the human heart torn and blasted by a cruel fate does not heal.”

The Halstead newspaper headline read: “Grief is general with our people: Death of Dr. Agnes Hertzler Huebert has cast a gloom over the city.” As her family, including her two little boys, stood by her grave, hundreds of mourners filed by, and paid their last respects to a remarkable young woman. Shortly after his daughter’s tragic death at the age of only 30, Arthur Hertzler renamed his clinic the Agnes Hertzler Memorial Hospital.

Rose Alma Riste, the third woman to complete her MD at the KU School of Medicine in 1920, was born on February 17, 1887, in Blue Springs, Nebraska. Her father was a schoolteacher, and the family moved quite a bit, eventually winding up in Washington State.

As a young adult, Riste attended the University of Washington in Seattle. She taught school for several years, and in 1916, at the age of 28, matriculated at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Rose received her MD degree in 1920, and soon after she joined the Methodist Episcopal Federation Mission Society. The Society sent her to India as a medical missionary, first in 1922, for five years.

She served a number of subsequent five-year missions to India, interspersed with trips back to the United States for continuing education, over the next 30 years. Riste retired around 1956 and settled in the Chicago area. She worked as a docent in a local science museum for many years. She died on March 24, 1975, at the age of 88.

Nancy J. Hulston
KU Medical Center Archives

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For the information about Mildred Curtis, see Petition for Probate of Will and Appointment of Administrator CTA, Probate Court of Allen County, Kansas; License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; Journal of the American Medical Association, V.172 (1/23/1960):359; Kansas Medical Journal, V. 60, p. 529; Iola Register, 10/06/1959; Student File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Melvia Avery, see A Tree Grows in Kansas by Martha Wreath Streeter, 1987, Wakefield Museum, Wakefield, Kansas; Wakefield News, 11/29/1917; Avery Family history, Wakefield Museum; License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; Correspondence with Pearl and Albion Avery, KUMC Archives, 2/05/2000; Correspondence with William Avery, KUMC Archives, 2/04/2000; Record of the Alumni, Kansas State University Archives, 1914; Wyoming State Journal, 6/17/1925 and 11/23/1917; Avery File, The Museum of the American West, Lander, Wyoming; Wind River Mountaineer, Lander, Wyoming, 11/23/1917; Death Certificate, Wyoming State Archives; Clay Center Times, Clay Center, Kansas, 11/29/1917; Student file, KUMC Archives; American Medical Association Directory, 1908-1917.

For the information about Marie A. Greene, see Kansas State Agricultural College board minutes, 6/27/1914, 7/7/1914, 3/28/1917, and 6/30/1917, Kansas State University Archives, Special Collections; Faculty Records, E, 9/14/1914, p. 24, 5/25/1918, p. 95; KSU Archives, Special Collections; License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; 1904 and 1906 Jayhawker, KU Archives, Lawrence; KU Alumni Magazine, January 1995; Student File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Charlotte Kaulbach, see License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; AMA Directory, 1912, 1916, 1917, 1918; Office of Alumni Records, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire; Kansas University Endowment Association Alumni Cards.

For the information about Kate Elting, see AMA Directory 1914, 1916, 1918, 1921, 1923, 1925; Ness County historical Society, Ness City, Kansas; Student file, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Bertha O. Anderson, see AMA Directory 1912, 1921; Lincoln, Illinois, City Directory 1914, 1916, 1918, 1920, 1922, 1924, 1926, 1929-30; License Application File, board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; 1911 Jayhawker, KU Archives; Student File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Etta Mundell, see Hutchinson News, 4/24/1958; License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives, Student file, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Mary Edna Darland Sippel, see 1913 Jayhawker, KU Archives; KU Alumni Magazine,4/06/1990, KU Archives; License Application File, board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; Student File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Bertha Shwein Orman, see License Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; KU Alumni Cards; City Directory, Sioux Falls, Iowa, 1923; Riley County Historical Museum, Portrait and Biographical Album; Student File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Agnes Hancock Hertzler, see Halstead Independent, 12/03/1928; License Application Files, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; AMA Directory of Deceased American Physicians, 1804-1929; Faculty Affairs, Arthur Hertzler File, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Ruth Patrick Spiegel, see License for Application File, Board of Healing Arts Records, Kansas State Archives; Medical Center Bulletin,October 1970; Belleville Telescope, Belleville, Kansas, 7/23/1970; Student Files, KUMC Archives.

For the information about Rose A. Riste, see The Riste Collection, KUMC Archives; “The Life and Times of Rose Riste, MD,” KU Med Magazine, V. 52, No. 2, 2002.]