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Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” (Fuller) Elsner was born in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1923. The second of five children, she grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts. She went to public school in her hometown for her early years and then attended Lincoln School for Girls in Providence, Rhode Island, because her parents wanted her to have a more rigorous academic education than was available in her hometown. She was fortunate to be the daughter of enlightened parents, who provided her a good quality education, equal to that of her brothers.
Although she comes from a long line of lawyers and judges, her family discouraged her from considering the law as a career. Instead, she followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, Dr. Edward Kidder.
Elsner attended Mt. Holyoke College for three years before enrolling in the Yale School of Medicine. At the completion of her first year of medical school, Mt. Holyoke awarded her a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her medical studies included a stint conducting thesis research at Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research where she did research involving rats. The technique that she developed to isolate and perfuse tumors with anticancer drugs became an accepted method of treating some cancers. While she briefly flirted with the idea of going into research, she decided on a different direction. She next considered being a surgeon, but the field was not welcoming to women, so she focused her energy on pediatrics. Elsner and five female classmates all received their medical degrees in 1948 from the Yale School of Medicine. She interned and did her pediatrics residency at three hospitals in New York City: NY Foundling, Knickerbocker, and Willard-Parker, the city’s infectious disease hospital. She continued her pediatrics training at the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle, Washington.
Dr. Elsner married her husband, Bob, a research physiologist, in 1946. They managed to weave their special backgrounds into two highly successful careers in Alaska, Washington, California, Peru and Australia. Together, they came to Alaska in 1953. He had a job as a research physiologist at USAF Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory at Ladd Air Force Base where he worked on the physiological effects of cold and high altitude and taught emergency arctic survival techniques to military pilots.
Dr. Elsner was the only pediatrician in the entire northern half of Alaska in the early 1950s, and one of the first female doctors. Upon arrival in the Territory, she joined the staff at Fairbanks Medical Clinic where one of her medical colleagues greeted her with the observation that “Alaska is no place for a woman doctor.” In fact, Alaska was a tough place for any doctor, regardless of gender. (She delivered a baby in the back of a jeep; she delivered another baby in a log cabin.) And given the shortage of doctors in Alaska in the 50s, Elsner wore multiple medical hats. Besides working at the clinic, she treated people privately in her own home– examining patients on her kitchen table. (Office calls were $5 for adults; $3 for children.) She travelled by mail plane to rural villages (Nome, Barrow, Arctic Village, Steven’s Village, Beaver, Fort Yukon, Venetie and Anaktuvuk Pass) as Public Health pediatrician for the state and conducted intensive field clinics – sometimes at her own expense. Although her specialty was pediatrics, when the sole obstetrician was out of town, she was responsible for delivering the babies, about 20 in all. These experiences included a breech presentation with a delayed delivery, which gave her time to brush up on a few topics in a textbook beforehand, and a set of twins. She even delivered the daughter of William Egan, the future first governor of Alaska!
Alaska became the first U.S. state to be fully inoculated for polio, thanks to Elsner’s efforts as a doctor in Public Health in the 1950’s. She was the first to proactively address children’s health across Alaska’s rural villages and communities. Elsner initiated well-baby clinics for the Territorial Health Department, and facilitated the first state-wide immunization and disease screening efforts (against such maladies as polio, measles and tuberculosis). She also trained numerous nurses involved in these state-wide rural health initiatives.
Before Elsner arrived in town, the Fairbanks Regional Public Health Center did not offer well-baby clinics, well-child exams, immunizations, disease screening, health education or family planning. Today, public health nurses at the Fairbanks center still provide these key services to all of Interior Alaska, including the Fairbanks North Star Borough and its rural communities. No one is turned away because of an inability to pay.
Dr. Elsner truly made an impact on medical care– particularly for Alaska’s children– in the three brief years that she and Bob were initially in Alaska. For the next seventeen years, they pursued their respective careers in Washington, Massachusetts, Peru, California and Australia, before returning for good to Alaska in 1973.
However, while Dr. Elsner was outside Alaska, one life experience demonstrates the measure of the woman and her toughness—the birth of Steven, her third child in 1957. It was while Bob was on assignment in Australia, and she and their two children, 5-year-old Wendy and 3-year-old Peter, were in a remote location on Bainbridge Island, WA. In the middle of the night, on the day after Christmas, long after the last ferry had left for Seattle, Elsner went into labor. The only alternative transport to hospital was to wake up a neighbor to drive her clear around Puget Sound on a long and bumpy road to town. She quickly ruled out that option, however, as the neighbor was a nervous guy to begin with, and not a particularly good driver.
Instead, Elsner collected towels, a Kelly clamp and ergotamine; climbed into the bathtub and delivered her son all by herself. She crawled into bed with her new baby, while her other two children slept nearby, and waited until dawn to call neighbors for help.
Elsner’s medical career in Alaska the second time around began in 1973—with her role as both a practitioner and educator. Once again, as a public health doctor, she promoted well-baby clinics, examined, screened, immunized and treated children in villages all over the state. Rural village flights, as many Alaskans well know, are not without danger. One native nurse, who had, by chance, been given Elsner’s empty seat on a missed flight, tragically lost her life, when the plane went down in bad weather near the west coast.
Her final employment was as campus physician with the student health service at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Elsner not only treated students, she also taught first-year medical students in the WAMI program, a compact of the western states to train medical students during an acute shortage of medical personnel and facilities in rural communities. Her medical students remember her mentorship fondly, as well as her unique and oldest medical license of all the doctors— issued by the Territory of Alaska. She trained nurses to become nurse-practitioners to better provide healthcare to rural Alaskans. Her nurse trainees remember her for the tender loving care she gave to all the students on campus who needed the human touch as well as her medical care.
Dr. Elsner was simultaneously caring, democratic and strong. She was assertive, particularly for those less fortunate, and especially if she thought someone was being treated poorly or unfairly. While Dr. Elsner led the university staff, she thought they were all colleagues, and stood up for them, perhaps even more so than herself. When she retired in 1986, she was as highly educated as any professor, yet not equally compensated. She advocated for her replacement (a former female WAMI student) to receive at least double the salary.
Perhaps the best proof of her impact the second time around is Dr. Jean Tsigonis, who was another first-year medical student when Elsner taught in the WAMI program. Today Dr. Tsigonis practices medicine in Fairbanks, Alaska where Elsner lives, and this month saw her newest patient: Dr. Elizabeth Elsner! Elsner’s son Peter was present during the visit and reported that Dr. Tsigonis was thorough, thoughtful and caring of her new patient. So, in a stroke of kismet, Elsner’s life’s work has come full circle and she is now the beneficiary of her own teachings.
All told, Elsner practiced medicine for 38 years. But even in retirement, she never retired. She remained in Fairbanks as a docent at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, taught elementary school children, served on the state and local boards of the League of Women Voters, and Planned Parenthood. She was elected to serve on the State’s Violent Crimes Compensation Board, and participated in the Adolescent Health Coalition, Substance Abuse Task Force and the Fairbanks Coalition for Privacy in Pregnancy Decisions.
Looking back at her life and medical care, Dr. Elsner said that her most satisfying work was having established the well-baby clinics so that the nurse-practitioners could carry on and ensure that good health care was available to all babies, and bringing medical care to poor, young women of color – people in the margins of the health care system.
In my February 2017 interview with Dr. Elsner, at her home in Fairbanks, just one month after celebrating her 70th anniversary with husband Bob, I asked her if she had any regrets – if there was anything she wished she had done. She answered in a word:
Induction ceremony acceptance speech https://youtu.be/vhe33od225A
Van Cleve, M. 1991. Dr. Elizabeth Elsner is interviewed by Margaret Van Cleve on April 16, 1991. Series title: On the road recording old timers. Oral Histories 91-28, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Rasmuson Library, mp3 (90min).
Wilson, G.G. 1991. History of medicine in Alaska—The Elsners: Elizabeth Fuller, M.D. and Robert Ph.D. Journal of Alaska Medicine 32(1), issue 4: 39-40.