Doc Susie Anderson: Frontier Medic
I’ve sort of been on a “strong women of the West” kick in regards to picking topics to chaw about in the ol’ Campfire Chronicle. I usually try to mix things up a little in regard to blog posts. I mean, I don’t want to come across like my friend Ronnie who has to eat all of one type of food from his dinner plate before moving on to the next. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with eating all of your corn before moving on to the mashed potatoes, but I tend to enjoy a good casserole, myself. But doggone it! There are just so many interesting women of the Old West. I hope you won’t mind that I want to write about another one of those strong women, today. Specifically, I want to write about Susan Anderson, M.D.
As you might have guessed, it’s the M.D. after Susan Anderson’s name that really intrigues me. Oh, sure, there were plenty of women who served as midwives. But, doctors? Old West “lady doctors” were a rarity, to be sure.
The Doctor is In and Out and In and… Well, Just Read It and See for Yourself
Susan Anderson was born in 1870 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her family moved to Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1891, during the gold rush. The West had a lot to offer people who were hoping to change their luck by finding a strike. But, Susan made her own luck by heading back east to complete college and medical school. In 1897, she graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan. Things were going great for Susan, except for the fact that she was diagnosed with tuberculosis while in medical school. That diagnosis prevented her from taking an internship at the Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The new doctor joined her family in Cripple Creek and set up practice. It wasn’t the fact that she had tuberculosis that prevented her practice from flourishing; it was the fact she was a woman! Even gold miners had their “standards” when it came to selecting a physician, apparently. So, she moved to Denver and set up practice there. Surely, the big city dwellers would be more accepting of a lady doctor, she thought. Well, not actually. So, she moved to Greeley, Colorado, where she practiced nursing for six years.
Get Better or Die Trying
While in Greeley, her tuberculosis took a turn for the worse. A dry, cold climate was just what the lady doctor ordered. Fortunately, she was in Colorado and cold wasn’t difficult to come by. The woman who had already moved more often than a M*A*S*H unit, packed up her trunks, grabbed her dog and headed off for Fraser, Colorado. It was December of 1907 and traveling by train to Fraser meant braving avalanches and snow drifts. Yeah, she had that “cold” part covered! Even a porter tried to talk her out of going to Fraser. But the doctor knew best and would not be dissuaded.
Doctor Anderson settled into a shack with the intention of getting better or dying. Either way, she didn’t plan on moving again anytime soon! How did the people of Fraser react to having a lady doctor in their midst? They reacted just fine, thank you! Of course, she didn’t actually tell them she was a doctor. To them, she was just your run of the mill woman with a concerning cough!
The townsfolk discovered that Susie was actually Doc Susie when she treated her first patient in town. The patient was a horse! The horse’s owner was overjoyed with the his recovery and word of the lady doctor in Fraser spread like wildfire! Well, Fraser only had twelve houses, at the time, so it’s probably not all that impressive. But still…word spread until every resident of those twelve houses knew about the lady doctor.
Home at Last
The people of Fraser seemed more receptive to the idea of a genuine female physician. And, let’s face it; people in remote logging camps didn’t have a lot of options when it came to healthcare! Before long, Doc Susie was regularly treating loggers and their families.
Things were looking up! Doc Susie blended right in with the locals, by wearing the latest in local fashions. That meant hip boots and layers of wool clothing. She wasn’t getting rich since she was usually paid in firewood or food, but she had a community that accepted her and appreciated her. That sense of community paid off in spades when a representative of the Denver and Salt Lake Railroad appeared on the good doctor’s doorstep. It seemed she was living on land that belonged to the D&SL. A local rancher offered her his barn and a group of lumberjacks moved the barn to another piece of land. That house still stands there today in Fraser.
In 1918, the great influenza epidemic did not spare the small community of Fraser. Doc Susie’s skills were put to the test as she went from one patient to the next.
When the Moffat Tunnel was being bored, Doc Susie found herself filling the role of Grand County Coroner. While it might not have been her life’s dream, it did provide her with a steady income. Around nineteen men were killed during the construction of the tunnel. A hundred more were injured. More than a time or two, Doc Susie made her way into the recesses of the tunnel to care for the injured and remove the dead.
No Publicity Hound
Doc Susie continued her practice until 1956. In the late 50’s she was the subject of a newspaper article that was distributed by the Associated Press. Over the years, she had also been the subject of magazine articles. Apparently, publicity wasn’t her cup of tea, though. When Ethel Barrymore offered to make a movie about her, Dr. Susan Anderson declined. While I admire that level of modesty, I would like to go on record as saying, “Meryl Streep, if you’re reading this. I would be honored to have you portray me in a biopic. Call me!”
Dr. Susan Anderson died in 1960, in Denver. She was 90-years-old, so I’m guessing her move to Fraser was indeed good for her health! She is buried in Cripple Creek, Colorado. In 1997, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She was also the subject of a book written by Virginia Cornell, Doc Susie: The True Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about this strong woman of the Old West. I promise that one day I will move on to the next “food item” on the plate. But, for now, I’ve really found these dishes to be mighty satisfying!
Happy Trails y’all!