Alaska memoirs teem with memorable tales of intrepid men questing for gold, furs, oil or fish. "With a Dauntless Spirit: Alaska Nursing in Dog-Team Days" offers a refreshingly different viewpoint that of professional women braving frontier hardships to serve others.
The book contains accounts by six women who provided health care in Alaska's most remote corners between 1900 and 1950, with an emphasis on the 1920s and 1930s. The accounts are excerpted from letters, journals and memoirs.
They were extraordinary people. At a time when few women had careers, these nurses made sacrifices to pursue challenging work, made doubly difficult in the primitive working conditions. They come across in their candid writings as articulate, adventurous and committed.
None are famous. Probably the best known today is Lula Welch of the Seward Peninsula, whose husband, Curtis, was the only physician in Nome at the time of the diphtheria outbreak that prompted the famous serum run in 1925. She wrote about their time in the fading mining towns of Council and Candle during two decades before they moved to Nome.
"It would seem as if most of my nursing consisted of housework, washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, but it was always 24-hour duty. Even nursing was hard on account of scarcity of water in winter, no bathtubs, and no modern devices to help us with the work. Of course, we had no X-rays. I wonder how we got on with no blood transfusions, no antibiotics, and only a small sterilizer," she wrote.
"But it was a great satisfaction to think we did and that we saved some lives and made those who suffered comfortable."
The women, like many professionals then and now, were not from Alaska. Some looked upon it as a temporary adventure; others devoted most of their careers to the territory.
Stella Fuller, who served a two-year stint on a Red Cross project, was supposed to cover the Aleutians, Alaska Peninsula and Kenai Peninsula. In a 1922 report, she sang the land's praises:
"The ranges of snowy mountains, as far as the eye could see, the brilliant sunsets on Lake Kenai, and the tales of fishing, hunting, and trapping, the hardships of the prospector's life, the quaint humor, and the Alaskan habit of abusing one's best friends to their faces were more entertaining than shopping on Fifth Avenue or Michigan Boulevard."
They wrote of interesting cases, of grief at their limitations and of joyful camaraderie. Often, they wrote of the unique difficulties attending their work. For example, in 1936 Alma Carlson wrote from Kotzebue to her family about a time her rounds went astray:
"For the first time I have been out when the drivers have got lost and not found the village as intended, and I have had to sleep out in the open without tent or even camp stove. Going from Selawik to Buckland we had that experience. ... The weather got cloudy and misty and rained part of the time (my parkey cover froze stiff like a board). ... Two nights for shelter a hole in the snow was dug, sled cover thrown over for a roof. I had my sleeping bag and my feather quilt so I slept as warm as in any hotel."
Not all the hardships stemmed from the rugged environment and lack of amenities. One nurse lost her job due to a dispute over which agency had jurisdiction; another had to cancel surgeries when the physician turned up drunk. Often, circumstances forced the nurses to make vital decisions exceeding the bounds of their training and legal authority.
The book's editors do an admirable job explaining the context of the nurses' work. With that additional insight, the details of the personal reminiscences hint at broader social issues such as race relations and the evolution of public health services in rural Alaska. In contrast to the modern medical system, the earliest Bush nurses were employees of the territory's education department. They worked closely with imported teachers and missionaries to "civilize" Natives through promoting Western concepts of hygiene.
By using a variety of sources, the book highlights diverse attitudes and aspects of the nurses' situation and shows how the medical services improved over time.
The book is a good example of what historians call primary sources. It does not provide a complete history of rural health care, nor is it a biography or an adventure story. Instead, it is a lucid peek into an important but neglected part of Alaska's past that still has implications for today.
The Alaska Nurses Association deserves special thanks for having the foresight to collect and preserve these memories before these remarkable women died.
This book is a good read, especially for anyone interested in nursing, Bush health care and women's roles in early 20th-century Alaska.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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