Empowered Women of the West – Dr. Nellie MacKnight (Part Two)

Dr. Nellie MacKnight (continued) For Part One click here.

The day after Olive’s funeral, Nellie was sent to live with her father’s brother and his wife in New York. While she got on well with her Uncle, his wife resented Nellie’s presence and made the fact well known to her. After two years of suffering verbal abuse from her Uncle’s wife, Nellie opted to go live with her mother’s sister, Mary until her father finally sent for her to live with him in the community of Bishop in Owens Valley, CA. He’d given up on his dreams of gold and returned to his career as a surveyor. Nellie was 14 years old and had not seen her father in nearly ten years.

Although her father still possessed the same sternness she remembered as a small child, Smith made an effort to reacquaint himself with his daughter. He enrolled her at the Inyo Academy, a boarding school, and when he wasn’t traveling for work, came to visit Nellie often. He took her on weekend fishing trips and taught her about the outdoors and how to survive in the wilderness. Finally, Nellie had the father she’d so longed for, and all to herself—until he broke the news that he was to remarry.

When Smith and his new wife returned from their honeymoon, they moved into a house near Nellie’s school and she moved in with them. With his new marriage, it seemed that Smith’s previous sternness turned to suspicion and possessiveness, and he never let Nellie attend dances or any kind of social event. Any fears Nellie might have had about her new stepmother were quickly squelched as Nellie found her to be a refuge from her father’s controlling ways. The two got along famously.

Nellie loved school and again excelled at her studies. At the age of 17 she graduated as valedictorian of her class. Exceedingly proud of his daughter, Smith insisted that Nellie go to college. Nellie was thrilled at the prospect of pursuing her dreams of an education in literature. But, that was not to be. Her father would not pay for an education in anything but law or medicine. Nellie knew not to contradict her father. And, after thinking about it—and remembering her grandmother and uncle’s death from typhoid—decided that medicine might be the right path for her.

Accompanied by her father, Nellie left for San Francisco to attend school at Toland Hall Medical College. He got her settled and returned home. While leaving her father and stepmother behind caused Nellie some distress, she quickly realized that she would soon be free from her father’s restrictive discipline. However, the reception she received at Toland Hall was less than warm and inviting. As one of only three women in the school, Nellie faced prejudice and resentment from the other students and professors. One of her professors, Dr. R. Beverley Cole, believed “that there are six to eight ounces less brain matter in the female. Which shows how handicapped she is.”

But, Nellie rose above the discrimination and chauvinism and graduated with honors. She had her name printed on her diploma as “Helen M. MacKnight,” at the suggestion of the school Dean, whose respect Nellie finally earned. He advised her that using the name “Helen” would give her more credibility in the world than Nellie.

Nellie went on to intern at the Pacific Dispensary for Women and Children, a hospital founded by three female doctors. In 1893, she joined the staff and specialized in working with children. She also assisted with obstetrics, disease research, and surgeries, including amputation. Two years later, her stepmother fell ill and Nellie had to return home. Her stepmother recovered under Nellie’s constant care, and instead of returning to the dispensary, Nellie decided to set up her own practice in the front room of her parents’ home.

Women with horse and buggy 1895 (Vintage Everyday)

Dr. Helen MacKnight soon became lovingly referred to as “Dr. Nellie” as she made her rounds about town and in the nearby mining camps in her small buggy pulled by two sturdy horses. As her reputation and financial situation improved, she eventually moved her practice out of her parents’ home.

In 1898 Nellie met her husband, Dr. Guy Doyle, another physician in the area. Unlike the other male doctors Nellie encountered in school, Doyle treated Nellie with admiration and respect. They fell in love and decided to go into practice together. They treated patients in Owens County until World War I when Dr. Doyle answered the call to service. After the war, Nellie and Guy moved to the Berkeley Hills where Nellie practiced anesthesiology at the University of California Hospital. In 1934, Nellie realized her childhood dreams of becoming an author and published her autobiography titled A Child Went Forth. The book was later retitled, Dr. Nellie.

 

Roses of the West, by Anne Seagrave

Enss, Chriss. “Wild Women Wednesday: Dr. Nellie Mattie MacKnight.” Cowgirl Magazine. October 19, 2016, https://cowgirlmagazine.com/wild-women-wednesday-dr-nellie-mattie-macknight/

 

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