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“The streets of the town were like a country road, lined with tall poplars and spreading cottonwoods – quick growing trees marked boundary lines and gave shelter to man and beast. Their leaves were pieces of gold in the sunshine.” Nellie MacKnight – 1887After a brief stay at her father’s ranch, Smith enrolled Nellie at the Inyo Academy. Not only would she be studying at the school, but living there as well. Smith spent a great deal of time on surveying trips and wanted Nellie to be in a safe place while he was gone. The Inyo Academy was home to many young men and women whose parents were ranchers and cattlemen from all over the country. Nellie thrived at the school, and once again excelled in ever subject. She was valedictorian of her class when she graduated from the Academy. Smith insisted the now seventeen year-old Nellie should go to college and continue her education. She was in favor of the idea and decided to pursue studies in literature. Smith promised to pay for her schooling only if she chose law or medicine as her point of interest.
“If I wished an education I must abide by his decision. My only knowledge of the law was “the quality of mercy.” My only picture of a woman doctor was that of Doctor Mary Walker, dressed in men’s clothes and endeavoring in every way to disguise the fact that she had been born a woman. That I should choose neither was unthinkable.” Nellie MacKnight – 1887As Nellie contemplated her decision her thoughts settled on her grandmother’s struggle with typhoid fever and her mother’s fatal attempt to ease the physical pain she suffered. It didn’t take Nellie long to come to the conclusion that her “calling” was in medicine. Just prior to Nellie graduating from the Academy her father remarried. Nellie’s initial reaction to her step-mother was one of indifference, but as she got to know her she had a change of heart. She was an extremely kind woman and never failed to show Nellie love and compassion. She encouraged her step-daughter in her future endeavors and cried for days when Nellie moved to San Francisco to attend medical school. Smith accompanied his only child to the Bay area and on to Toland Hall Medical College. He paid her tuition, helped her find a place to live, wished her well, and returned to Bishop. Their parting was difficult. Nellie was grateful for the opportunity he was giving her and vowed to be home soon with a diploma in hand. Neither fully realized how difficult it would be to fulfill that promise. The attitude of many of the Toland Hall professors and students towards women in medicine was vicious. Most felt a female’s presence in the medical profession was a joke. Nellie was aware of the prevailing attitude and was determined to prove them wrong. She devoted herself to her studies, arriving at school at dawn to work in the lab. She kept late hours, pouring over Gray’s Anatomy and memorizing the definitions of various medical terms. The harder she worked the more resentful her male counterparts became. Classmates exchanged vulgar jokes with one another whenever the women were around in hopes of breaking their spirits. Professors were cold and distant to Nellie and the two other women at the school – often times refusing to answer their questions. Doctor R. Beverly Cole, Toland Hall’s Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, delighted in insulting female students during his lectures. He maintained publicly that “female doctors were failures.” “It is a fact,” he told students, “that there are six to eight ounces less brain matter in the female. Which shows how handicapped she is.” Nellie quietly tolerated Doctor Cole’s remarks and allowed them only to spur her on towards the goal of acquiring a degree. While in her third year of medical school, Nellie took an intern position at a children’s hospital. Many of the patients that allowed her to care for them were Chinese. She assisted in many minor operations and births and helped introduce modern forms of cures that countered the Far East’s approach to handling illnesses. Months before Nellie was to graduate she was granted permission to assist in a major surgery. Two physicians were required to perform an emergency mastoid operation on a deathly ill docks worker. Nellie was one of two interns on duty and the only woman. The male intern fainted at the site of the first incision. Nellie was a bit uneasy as well, but assured the doctor she could do the job when he ordered her at his side.
“The surgeon talked as he worked. He described the blood supply, the nerve supply, the vessels that must be avoided, the paralysis that would follow if he invaded the sacred precinct of the facial nerve. Chip by chip he removed the bone cells, but the gruesome spectacle had been magically transformed into a thrilling adventure. I forgot that I had a stomach; forgot everything but the miracle that was being performed before my eyes, until the last stitches were placed, the last dressings applied.” Nellie MacKnight – 1893Nellie eagerly looked forward to graduation day. In spite of the fact that her grades were good and her talent for medicine was evident, the male faculty and students remained unimpressed with her efforts. She was confident that when she and the two other female students accepted their diploma the men would be forced to recognize that a woman’s place in the emerging profession is a definite. Shortly after passing her final examination Nellie was summoned to the Dean’s office. He was a man who did not share Nellie’s vision for a woman’s role in medicine and because of that she feared he was going to keep her from graduating. The matter he wanted to discuss was how she wanted her name to appear on the diploma. She told the Dean that her christened name would be fine. The man was furious. “Nellie Mattie MacKnight?” He asked her annoyed? “Nellie Mattie?” Nellie did not know how to respond. “How do women ever expect to get any place in medicine when they are labeled with pet names,” he added? The Dean persuaded Nellie to select a more suitable name. She searched her mind for names in which her name had been derived. “I had an Aunt Ellen…and there was Helen of Troy…,” she thought aloud. “You may write Helen M. MacKnight,” she said after a moment of contemplation. The Dean informed her that he would make the necessary arrangements. Before she left his office he added, “See that it is Helen M. MacKnight on you shingle too!” Nellie graduated with honors from Tolland Hall Medical School. Her father and step-mother were on hand to witness the momentous occasion. As her name was read and the parchment roll was placed in her hands she thought of her mother and grandmother and pledged to help cure the sick. Chances for women to serve the public in that capacity were limited, however. Widely circulated medical journals stating how “doubtful it was that women could accomplish any good in medicine,” kept women doctors from being hired. They criticized women for wanting to “leave their position as a wife and mother,” and warned the public of the physical problems that would keep women from being professionals.
“Obviously there are many vocations in life which women cannot follow; more than this there are many psychological phenomena connected with ovulation, menstruation and parturition which preclude service in various directions. One of those directions is medicine.” The Pacific Medical Journal – 1895In San Francisco in 1983, there was only one hospital for women physicians to practice medicine. The Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children was founded by three female doctors in 1875. The facility was designed to provide internship for women graduates in medicine and training for women in nursing and like professions. Nellie joined the Pacific Dispensary staff, adding her name to the extensive list of women doctors already working there from all over the world. In the beginning, Doctor MacKnight’s duties were to make patient rounds and keep up the medical charts by recording temperatures, pulses and respiration. After a short time she went on to deal primarily with children suffering from tuberculosis. She also assisted in surgeries, obstetrics, and was involved in diphtheria research. In 1895, Nellie left the hospital and returned home to help take care of her ill stepmother. Within a month after arriving at her parent’s her stepmother was on her way to a full recovery. Nellie decided to stay on in Bishop and set up her own practice. The response she received from the community and the two other male physicians in town was all too familiar to her. She persevered, however. She set up an office in the front room of the house where she lived, stocked a medicine cabinet with the necessary supplies, and proudly hung out a shingle that read Helen M. MacKnight, M.D., Physician and Surgeon. Doctor MacKnight traveled by cart to the homes of the handful of patients who sought her services. She stitched up knife wounds, dressed severe burns, and helped deliver babies. As news of her healing talents spread her clientele increased. Soon she was summoned to mining camps around the area to treat typhoid patients. Although her diploma and shingle read Helen M. MacKnight, friends and neighbors who had known her for years called her “Doctor Nellie.” It became a name the whole countryside knew and trusted. While tending to a patient in Silver Peak, Nevada, Nellie met a fellow doctor named Guy Doyle. The physicians conferred on a case involving a young expectant teenager. Doctor Doyle treated Doctor MacKnight with respect and kindness. Nellie was surprised by his behavior.
“I had worked so long, fighting my way against the criticism and scorn of the other physicians of the town, that it seemed a wonderful thing to find a man who believed in me and was willing to work with me to the common end of the greatest good to the patient.” Nellie MacKnight – 1898What began as a professional relationship grew quickly into romance. The couple decided to pool their resources and go into business together. They opened an office inside a drugstore on the main street of Bishop. In June of 1898, Helen and Guy exchanged vows in a ceremony that was attended by a select few in Inyo County.
“My wedding dress was a crisp, white organdy, with a ruffled, gored skirt that touched the floor all the way around. The waist had a high collar and long sleeves. The wedding bouquet was a bunch of fragrant jasmine…. A small group of friends came to witness the ceremony, and the gold band that plighted our troth was slipped over my finger.” Nellie MacKnight – 1898Doctor Nellie MacKnight Doyle and Doctor Guy Doyle provided the county with quality medical care for more than twenty years. The couple grew their practice and took care of generations of Bishop residents. Nellie and Guy had two children – a girl and a boy. When their daughter grew up she decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and pursue a medical degree. Upon her graduation from college she was given a foreign fellowship in bacteriology. Doctor Nellie M. MacKnight spent the last thirty years of her life studying and practicing anesthesiology. She died in San Francisco in 1957 at the age of 84.