"Ad Astra per Aspera"
"LITTLE, but O my! Little, but O my," was the daily greeting to her companions, of a gray-eyed, firmlipped freshman as she entered a Kansas high school more than a score of years ago.
This daily reminder was her method of impressing upon the minds of all her acquaintances, young and old, that, although small in stature, she had a fixed determination to become a great physician. The fact that women doctors were few in those days and their services not in great demand, did not in the least daunt this maiden or cause her, then or later, to waver from her early determination.
High-school days passed, then a year of waiting to secure the necessary means to enter her chosen premedical preparatory school. Following the custom of those days, she read in a physician's office during that year. Many of the tomes dealing with the subject of medicine were almost as large as this mite of womanhood who so determinedly devoured their contents. Few of her friends knew of the self-denial practiced during that year; and no one outside her loyal family ever will know all the heartbreaking events that were packed into her last four years of medical study before she finally graduated with honors from the "Woman's Medical College" of Kansas City, Missouri.
Sunshine often follows rain. Just before the completion of her medical course, her life was enriched by the love of a prominent young businessman whose wife she became. All thought of either a present or a future professional life was put aside as she entered whole-heartedly into becoming a homemaker.
Happy days succeeded one another for more than a year—then following swiftly upon the birth of their son, sudden and overwhelming tragedy. The husband, who had continued a devoted lover, was claimed by death, a victim of spinal meningitis—a disease less understood then than now.
The young mother, with not only an infant son but also a widowed mother who was now wholly dependent upon her, faced a future which looked bleak indeed.
Her husband's rapidly growing business, jewelry and watch-repairing, was one which she could neither carry on nor supervise, so the mercantile life which had been their source of income was closed to her. She could not enter her profession because of the need of expensive medical equipment which she could not provide.
Her husband had carried life-insurance sufficient to have smoothed the way and provided for the future of his wife and son, but the policies had been written before his marriage, in favor of his father. Although he had expressed his intention of making the change necessary to provide for his wife and child, he had neglected to do so; So the father, entirely within his legal rights, claimed and retained the entire amount.
As soon as the strength of the young mother permitted, she established an office in her home, but little practice came.
Before the little son had reached his first year, he fell from a window to the sidewalk outside, fracturing his skull and bursting an eardrum. When his mother reached him, he was unconscious and his heart had stopped beating. She carried him into the house and worked frantically until he began to breathe. Then the doctor-mother collapsed, but her presence of mind had saved the life of her son. By this time, a half dozen physicians had arrived. All agreed that the restoration of the child, injured as he was, was nothing short of a miracle; that he owed his life to the immediate and skillful treatment he had received. Then followed days and nights of anxious nursing, his treatment being carefully followed by the medical specialists, all of whom were lavish in their praise of the young doctor's skill. In the end, the mother was rewarded by the little lad's complete recovery.
Before the year had closed, the practice of the efficient and energetic doctor showed a marked growth, and a business location in some growing locality seemed desirable. With her mother and son she moved to Armourdale, a suburb of Kansas City, where, as the years followed, she built up a large practice and was again able to view life through rosetinted glasses, as in her early married life.
Then came the never-to-be-forgotten flood when the raging Kansas and Missouri Rivers overflowed their banks, inundating miles and miles of lowlands of both Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. Many times before they had risen rapidly, overflowed their banks slightly and as quickly receded. So, although the residents of the "Bottoms" watched anxiously, they had no great fear until too late. Instead of receding, the waters continued to rise, inundating street after street, block after block of higher ground. By the time the danger was apparent, flight was impossible.
The little Newkirk family and scores of others were taken out of their houses through the second story windows by boatmen who rowed them to safety. Martial law at once being established, orders were given and enforced, preventing the refugees from carrying anything with them—not even a change of clothing, as all boat space was required for passengers. For Dr. Newkirk this order meant the loss, not only of all medical supplies and surgical instruments without which she could not make a beginning elsewhere, but also of all household goods and her medical library.
While waiting for the flood to recede, she opened a makeshift office and carried on her practice as best she could, at the same time supervising one of the relief headquarters.
Armourdale with all its inundated territory remained under martial law for several weeks. Dr. Newkirk was given the first pass to enter the submerged section. When she entered her home, its condition can better be imagined than described: the house had been entirely submerged; furniture, clothing, bedding, rugs—everything in the house was ruined. Family pictures and relics were destroyed.
As Dr. Newkirk said in telling me her story, "No one knows what I passed through during those weeks of waiting when the uncertainty was even more terrible than the later reality." Though her heart was heavy, she refused to give up; and never, during that heartsick period of waiting, was she heard to bemoan her fate.
With her patients scattered in all directions, she was forced to find a new location, so chose another part of the city where there would be no danger of another flood. Although many of her former patients were in distant parts of the city, one by one they began to return as soon as they were able to locate her.
With her practice covering so wide a territory, she determined that some means of transportation was a necessity. No sooner had her decision been reached than the way opened to bring it to pass. A family friend of her girlhood days, hearing of her loss in the widely heralded flood, sent her a hundred dollars, telling her to use it for what she needed most.
As much of her practice was rural and the roads unpaved, she took sixty of the precious one hundred and purchased a horse and carriage. Now that she could reach her patients, regardless of distance, her practice increased rapidly and she was able once more to face the future hopefully.
As she drove along one of the main streets early one morning, she was stopped by a policeman accompanied by a man who declared that the doctor was driving a horse of his that had been stolen. The purchase had been made at the stockyards because it was possible to secure a good horse there far below the price she would be compelled to pay in any other market; but she had made the deal in good faith so was determined not to relinquish her property.
Even at the insistence of the policeman, she refused to surrender the horse. Convinced of her sincerity, he permitted the doctor to return to her home under surveillance, and the case was taken to court. Needless to say, she lost the case—and the horse. Bitter, indeed, were the hours that followed this tremendous loss!
With no other means of transportation, she again attempted to reach her patients by means of trolley cars but soon found she was attempting the impossible. She knew that she must have another horse. This time she went to the country where there would be no danger of a repetition of the trickery of which she had been a victim.
She purchased a horse that was not "city-broke". He was nervous and high-strung, unaccustomed to streetcars and city noises. Automobile traffic was just beginning, and at his first sight of the strange horseless-carriage, he ran away, smashing the doctor's carriage into bits, although she, miraculously, escaped injury. Her mother, who witnessed the accident, was terribly frightened and would not consent either to another trial of the country horse or to the purchase of another horse that was "city-broke".
The horse was sold and for many months the doctor again used the trolley cars, although this method of travel meant many long, tiresome rides, blocks and blocks of walking, and the loss of many patients. Eventually, an automobile was purchased as it became the recognized means of transportation.
That "the darkest hour is just before the dawn", proved true with Dr. Newkirk. Her skill as a child specialist became more and more widely recognized, so it was no longer necessary to travel to her patients. Instead, mothers began to bring their children to her, and it was not long until she was recognized as one of Kansas City's outstanding child specialists.
Busy as she was, Dr. Newkirk found time to enter into the civic life of the city. Believing there were some wrong practices that should be righted for the sake of her own child and the children of her friends and patients as well as those of the entire city, she waged a bitterly contested but successful campaign against a group of men candidates and was elected the first woman member of the Board of Education in Kansas City, Kansas. With the accomplishment of the desired reforms which the male members of the board had hitherto overlooked or refused to recognize, Dr. Newkirk withdrew from service on the Board but has never lost interest in the work of the schools or the cause of education.
When I talked with her in her artistically furnished, completely equipped suite in her Kansas City office, there was not even a backward glance at her years of struggle. Instead, she was looking forward with eager anticipation to future service in her chosen field. She insisted that she had always had her share of the good things of life as they passed by; that her ignoring of the events she did not wish to remember had contributed greatly to her ability to carry on.
Dr. Newkirk recalled many humorous as well as serious incidents that had taken place in the early days of her practice. When hot-water bottles were first put into general use, she had as a patient, a hypochondriac who had experimented with every known remedy, without apparent success. She determined to try the merits of this new invention which she speedily secured. In the middle of the night her family called the doctor to come at once. The doctor came. When she entered the sickroom, the patient cried out, "Help me, quick! I'm bleeding to death! I'm bleeding to death."
The doctor at once ascertained that what she had already guessed, was true. The new water-bottle was leaking. Before she could quiet the patient, a passer-by who heard the continued piercing screams and who was sure some terrible crime was being committed, called the police. When they arrived, posthaste, everyone, including the officers-of-the-law, enjoyed a good laugh.
A little three-year-old girl had diphtheria. Dr. Newkirk was called. Antitoxin was administered and the throat symptoms abated, but temperature and pain continued. The doctor decided to call in an ear specialist, believing that an abscess of the ear had resulted from the disease. The specialist made an examination and said, "No symptoms of ear trouble," and left. But the appealing brown eyes of the baby begged so hard for relief that in the middle of the night Dr. Newkirk performed the ear operation alone. She found an abscess and relief was instantaneous. The ear specialist admitted that he was deceived, and added that the doctor's prompt action had, doubtless, saved the baby's life.
Dr. Newkirk firmly believes that rewards in life are bound to come to those who deserve them. When an epidemic of spinal meningitis gripped the country, the doctor who had not been able to save her husband, was enabled to treat many cases successfully because of the special study she had made of the disease as a result of the death of her husband. Her first case, a boy of fifteen, was saved by prompt injection of serum into the spine, the parents giving full consent while neighbors and friends and even some of the medical profession openly expressed their disapproval. All were astounded at the patient's complete recovery.
The frequent ringing of the telephone and the appearance of patients in the outer office, where a nurse was in attendance, reminded me that my interview should be brought to a close, even though the busy doctor gave no indication that such might be her desire.
As I passed through the outer office, I noted Kansas' motto, "Ad astra per aspera," frescoed on the wall where it would attract the attention of waiting patients; and I better understood the philosophy of this remarkable doctor who has apparently overcome every obstacle that has stood in the way of success in her profession.
I left asking myself, "Is not this as truly the motto of Dr. Newkirk as it is of the state to which she is so loyal?—'Ad astra per aspera'—'To the stars through hardships.'"
1. What "fixed determination" did Jessie Slavens-Newkirk have during her years in high school?
2. Of what college was she a graduate?
3. How did Dr. Newkirk and her family escape from the Armourdale flood? Would you enjoy such an experience?
4. What happened to one of the horses which she purchased?
5. Tell the story of one of Dr. Newkirk's patients.
6. What is the meaning of "Ad astra per aspera"?
from "Unsung Heroes" by Elma Holloway
The MacMillan Company, New York, 1941