When Elizabeth Elsner came to Fairbanks, there were 12 doctors in the city and few women practicing medicine anywhere in the country.
“Alaska is no place for a woman physician,” she heard from one of her colleagues, as she remembered in a 1991 interview with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Elsner proved him wrong, becoming one of the first female doctors in the Interior in the early 1950s, caring for children in northern villages and helping Alaska become the first place in the nation fully vaccinated against polio.
“All the men in the world were telling her ‘No, women can’t do this,’ ‘Women can’t do that,’” her daughter-in-law, Julie Hagelin, said. “Yet she persisted and had an incredibly rewarding, important career that involved helping others. And she did it in rural settings and often under very difficult circumstances.”
Now, the 98-year-old Elsner is witnessing Alaska deal with another pandemic and vaccination efforts that are taking a very different turn.
Proactive approach to medicine
Elsner came to Alaska in 1953 together with her husband, Bob. A graduate of Yale School of Medicine, Elsner brought with her a revolutionary approach of proactive medicine. A pediatrician, she wanted to examine and vaccinate children before they had problems, instead of waiting for them to get sick and then deal with it. Hagelin likened Elsner’s approach to making “slow and steady progress forward,” in a manner that avoids the problems in advance, instead of reactively “stamping out every fire” that pops up” haphazardly.
“I practiced in my own home, as well as in the clinics,” Elsner said. “There was a kind of rollout pad on the kitchen table to weigh babies and examine them, and describe the infections and give immunizations.”
Eventually, Elsner facilitated the first statewide immunization and disease screening efforts against polio, measles and tuberculosis. Elizabeth’s achievements were recognized in 2017 when she was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. Still, when Elsner was asked about the biggest challenges of her life, she said: “Acceptance of myself as a woman as well as a doctor.”
Caring for children in rural Alaska
Besides working at the Fairbanks medical clinic, Elsner served as the only pediatrician for the northern part of the state. She flew — often at her own expense — to villages and towns from Nome to Northway and from Utqiagvik to Tanana.
“Often I went by mail plane to Stevens Village, stayed there for two or three hours, saw as many children as I can possibly run through in front of my eyes and under my stethoscope and went on to Beaver and then back to Fort Yukon for the night,” she said. “It was not a very thorough way or an ideal way of doing medical care, but these children were not seen from one year to another by a doctor.”
During her first visits, “the adults didn’t come forward very enthusiastically; they didn’t seem to know what to complain about,” Elsner said. “But they were willing to push their children forward to be examined.”
Elsner vaccinated and examined children for diseases, treated acute things and referred them to Fairbanks when they needed more complicated help.
Often moving from tent to tent and from house to house, Elizabeth said that during every visit, she was offered tea.
When she visited Anaktuvuk Pass, she saw that in one family, a grandmother — one of the elders carrying traditional knowledge of the village — had recently died from measles she got from one of her grandchildren, Elizabeth Elsner’s son, Peter Elsner, said.
“A lot of times the grandparents would take care of the kids while the parents were out hunting,” Peter said. ”One of the big deals then was to immunize the children so that the parents and the grandparents wouldn’t get sick or die.”
Caring for children everywhere
Elsner brought her passion for medicine and helping children everywhere she went. She even delivered one of her own children on her own.
In a remote place in Washington, Elizabeth gave birth to her third child, Steven — all by herself. According to her biography at the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame, Bob was on assignment in Australia, and Elizabeth went into labor in the middle of the night, long after the last ferry had left for Seattle. She collected towels, a Kelly clamp and ergotamine; climbed into the bathtub and delivered her son.
After Elizabeth and Bob lived in Alaska in the 1950s, they worked in Washington, Peru, Norway, Australia and California together. But Alaska was always calling them back, because of their love for the outdoors, adventures and for mountaineering. They returned in the early 1970s, and in their retirement years, they would visit their stomping grounds in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the summertime, but always ventured back north to spend their winters up here.
“They were snowbirds, but they went the other way,” Peter said.
The family hiked up to the base camp of Everest in Nepal, lived on a dairy farm in the woods in Norway, and everywhere they went, Elizabeth and Bob exhibited their lifelong curiosity about science, medicine and nature, Peter said.
“From Polynesia to Nepal, it seemed that every time we came into some little village, kids would gravitate around my mom, and she would sing ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’ to them, and they just loved the animal sounds and the ‘E-I-E-I-O’ chorus,” he said.
He also said that his mother was helping children even on those family trips.
Back in Alaska in the 1970s and ’80s, Elizabeth worked as the campus doctor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, taught nurses to provide better health care in the villages, and instructed medical students.
For Elizabeth, there’s no “I” in public health. She fought to bring health to the community, helping people who couldn’t afford medicine, Peter said.
Ironically, now, Elizabeth’s family is struggling to keep her safe in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Witnessing another pandemic
After working hard to bring a proactive approach to medicine and, despite the odds, succeeding against polio and measles, Elizabeth is dismayed looking at the current pandemic, Hagelin said.
“It’s just heartbreaking for her to see how many people have this disdain for science and medicine,” Peter said.
Starting with the delivery of the diphtheria vaccine to Nome in 1925, Alaska has an almost century-long history of succeeding against epidemics, Hagelin said. Yet today, people in Alaska “are choosing the reactive path, without masks and with low vaccination rates, which makes the virus spread faster” and “the pandemic last longer and cause more deaths,” she added.
Elizabeth, at 98, still reads the newspaper every day and watches the news on TV.
“She shakes her head and says, ‘How did we get here?’ and ‘What’s wrong with us?’” Hagelin said. “We have a choice between making things 100 times easier or 100 times worse.”