Capital Region Scrapbook: Pioneers in medicine

When Dr. Elizabeth Gillette began her career in Schenectady in 1955, a “lady doctor” was a rarity in

Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Gillette didn’t want to retire her little black bag.

“I’m not in the operating room much any more,” the longtime Schenectady doctor said in 1955. “But I still set broken bones, something I love to do.”

When Dr. Gillette began her career in Schenectady in 1955, a “lady doctor” was a rarity in the medical profession. By 1955, Elizabeth had company setting bones, listening to heartbeats and checking for fever.

“Schenectady, like other communities throughout the world, has its share of feminine physicians,” wrote Kathy McGarry Muller, who met women of medicine for an article in the Schenectady Gazette.

Janis Best was assistant psychiatrist at Ellis Hospital. Dr. Grace Pfeifer worked as an anesthetist, and had followed her father and grandfather into the medical arts. Ellis interns of 1955 included Dr. Barbara Fellows, a 1954 graduate of the school of medicine at McGill University in Montreal; Dr. Grace Jorgensen, whose parents operated Bellevue Maternity; and Dr. Mary Jane Fina, a 1954 graduate of Albany Medical College.

Dr. Mary Rowley was in general practice, and was busy at both work and home — she and her husband, Dr. William A. Busino, were raising three children. Dr. Annora McGarry also was working double shifts. She and her husband, Ellis anesthetist Thomas McGarry, were raising two kids. Annora was a 1951 graduate of the University of Vermont’s medical school.

Dr. Elsa B. Wainger, a 1927 graduate of the medical school of German University in Prague, Czechoslovakia, had been helping patients in Schenectady since 1936.

“Before entering private practice, she received pediatrics training in Budapest, Vienna and Berlin,” Muller wrote.

Another longtime “lady doctor” was Catherine Zaia, who had been curing and caring in the city since 1932. She was an assistant attending physician in diabetes at Ellis.

Dr. Gillette might have been speaking for all her colleagues when she discussed plans to keep working. Her personal career prognosis was to keep going “as long as my body will let me,” she said. “I want to die in harness.”

Elizabeth Gillette passed away in 1965.

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