Committed to Caring
Adventism’s first female physician taught us
a lesson about determination.
By Adriel D. Chilson
“Thomas! The dogs are barking! Look, a wolf! Oh, my baby!” Katherine screamed. Grabbing a pitchfork, Thomas outran his wife to where their baby daughter lay sleeping.
That morning the parents had bundled up little Katie, laid her on the grass, and bade their two faithful dogs to keep guard while they worked some distance away shocking hay. A huge wolf had emerged from the woods to challenge the dogs, who held him at bay.
“Oh, thank God! She could have been carried off and eaten!” the mother rejoiced.
The Lindsays had recently emigrated from Scotland and settled on a wooded claim in central Wisconsin near Lake Mendota. They built a sturdy log cabin for protection against wolves, bears, and the Wisconsin winter. As Katie grew older she not only helped care for her seven younger brothers and sisters but assisted with the farm work as well.
From the time she first learned to read she developed an insatiable appetite for books. To attend a little log schoolhouse meant a four-mile walk through the woods with its eerie wildlife noises. But books and school were her life. Her desk had been made from a log split in half with the smooth side up. Her slate pencil was a long, pointed stick and her first slate a level spot in front of the schoolhouse.
After reading a book about Florence Nightingale, she began to think of nursing as a career. “The Lady of the Lamp,” as she was known, had spent endless hours caring compassionately for the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War. Kate recalled the deaths of four of her younger brothers and sisters from childhood diseases. If only she had known what to do to save their lives.
In November 1859 Elder Isaac Sanborn picked Hundred Mile Grove northeast of Madison for his next lecture series. When the train in which he was riding was blocked by snowdrifts, he simply picked up his luggage and plodded on through the deep snow. He inquired for a schoolhouse, then announced nightly meetings. In his audience sat the Lindsay family and their neighbors, the Rankins, with their eight redheaded daughters. Kate and her family accepted the Bible-based Adventist teachings.
When the need for a meetinghouse arose, Thomas Lindsay offered a half acre of ground, and next-door neighbor Alexander Rankin did likewise. A church soon appeared straddling the boundary line of the two properties. It became known as the Hundred Mile Church and stood for nearly a century.
One day Kate hurried into the kitchen excitedly waving the latest church paper, the Second Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. “Look! It says that Battle Creek has opened a small hospital called Western Health Reform Institute. That’s where I must go and learn how to help sick people. I’d really like that kind of work. I could become a nurse or maybe even a doctor!”
Kate had a mind of her own. She would manage to get to Battle Creek somehow; her aspirations for helping the sick could not be squelched. A few months later a determined Kate Lindsay left home and headed for the new Health Reform Institute.
Dusting, scrubbing, mopping—her first assignments weren’t a bit exciting, but she was where she wanted to be. Here, in a hospital atmosphere, were a few patients with whom she could share compassion, and a doctor-mentor from whom she could learn much. Strangely, not one trained nurse could she find. She determined that someday she would be one herself, then train more.
Kate had heard of the growing number of “water-cure” institutions where patients benefited greatly from hydrotherapy treatments instead of the usual poisonous drugs. One of the most prominent was conducted by Dr. Thatcher Trail in Florence Heights, New Jersey. As soon as she was able to scrape together a few dollars, she left for a two-year nurses’ training at Dr. Trail’s.
Returning to Battle Creek in the fall of 1869, she worked faithfully as a nurse, but never lost sight of her goal of medical doctor. When the University of Michigan Medical College at Ann Arbor opened its doors to female students, Kate enrolled in the study of medicine.
Not without misgivings did Ann Arbor agree to women students. “A doubtful experiment” it was labeled. Female university students were eyed with curiosity by the citizens of this small city. They were pointed out, ridiculed, and hissed at. Boardinghouses hesitated to admit them. On the streets Kate and her companions were alert to the many remarks purposely intended for their ears: “The feminine mind cannot grasp the teaching of professional subjects.” “Their health will break down under the strain.” “It appears to be sheer folly.” “It will ruin the institution because the force of public opinion will soon break down the policy.” …
Finally, in 1875, the glorious day arrived when Kate received her degree in medicine from the University of Michigan. She returned to the Battle Creek health institute (now labeled Battle Creek Medical and Surgical Sanitarium) as a full-fledged physician under Dr. J. H. Kellogg, chief of staff.
Dr. Lindsay was assigned to head the Department of Obstetrics and Pediatrics. While there she sacrificed home comforts by sleeping in a room adjoining her office so that she might be available for night calls. She rarely used the elevator, because she considered walking the stairs more healthful. She placed great emphasis upon the use of natural remedies. She was a thorough advocate of fresh air and open windows at night, as well as lots of water for drinking and bathing.
Through her persistent efforts a school of nursing was inaugurated. Her textbooks were pamphlets compiled from her extensive notes. Punctuality she considered a virtue, and she expected it of every student. She was often seen between classes carrying a big alarm clock in one hand and an attendance record in the other….
Dr. Lindsay’s philosophy of nursing is expressed in her address to the graduating class of November 9, 1891:
“It is unfortunate that the world did not sooner consider that this work required careful study and preparation. Just as it has been thought that a woman knew by her intuition all that was needful to fulfill her duties as a mother, so it has been considered that a woman could nurse by intuition. Only lately has it been discovered that the profession of nursing requires such education and such painstaking care that the most highly cultured mind may find in it exercise for all its faculties….
“The nurse should remember that each sickroom is a field for missionary efforts. The consolation of religion is never so precious as when one is sick and suffering, and when perhaps the things of this life are slipping away. No one else is, for the time, so closely allied to the sufferer as a nurse. The minister and the doctor may make periodical calls, but they cannot stand in such close, confidential relations to the patient as the nurse.
“Remember, each of you, that your mission is to do good to your fellows, to heal the sick, and to alleviate suffering. In this way you will be following directly in the footsteps of the Master.”*
In 1895 Dr. Lindsay answered a call to help the medical and nursing staff at the pioneer Claremont Sanitarium in South Africa. Her knowledge and skills were soon recognized by the best doctors in Cape Town, who frequently called on her for consultation.
When she returned to the United States four years later, she served on the staff of the Colorado Sanitarium at Boulder.
She passed to her rest in March 1923, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains that she loved so much.
*Kathryn Jensen Nelson, Kate Lindsay, M.D., pp. 111, 112.
This article is adapted from the book, They Had a World to Win, by Adriel D. Chilson (copyright © 2001 by the Review and Herald Publishing Association. Used by permission). The author, a descendant of Ellen and James White, was for more than 50 years an Adventist pastor and evangelist. For information about this book and other titles telling the stories of Adventist pioneers, go towww.reviewandherald.com.