SCHENECTADY — Dr. Grace Jorgensen is remembered for her medical work and dedication to women’s health.
At nearly 94 years old, Jorgensen died earlier this week. She was known for her medical work and the role she played at Bellevue Woman’s Hospital.
“She was a remarkable woman,” regional historian and author Don Rittner said. “She was dedicated to her field and Bellevue wasn’t just a maternity hospital, they created a research lab. She was a leader. Dr. J and that hospital were leaders in healthcare for women. And that should be her legacy.”
Rittner wrote the book, “Delivery With Grace: Bellevue Maternity Hospital 1931-2001,” which he said is really about the history of Jorgensen and her mother, Mary Grace Jorgensen, who founded the hospital. He said they made sure everything was done correctly at the hospital.
“Against all odds, women were not supposed to be leaders in the medical community at the time,” Rittner said. “They were supposed to be nurses, but she was a full-fledged doctor. She made no bones about it, when people tried to tell her you couldn’t do things, they didn’t want to go against Dr. J.”
Mary Grace Jorgensen, a nurse, created Bellevue Hospital with the help of her husband, Elmer Jorgensen, in 1931. At the time the majority of women were giving birth at home. The Jorgensen family worked to increase the number of hospital births for women.
“She was a great human being, very dedicated wife and mother,” Rittner said. “She was a really beautiful lady, dedicated to her family and dedicated to her profession. You can’t get any better than that really.”
Grace Jorgensen took night classes at Union College, and then transferred to Russell Sage College. She went on to become one of eight women in her class of 125 at New York Medical College, where she met classmate and later husband of 59 years, Dr. Howard Jay Westney. Jorgensen interned at Ellis Hospital before rejoining her family at Bellevue Woman’s Hospital.
After her mother’s death in 1959, Grace Jorgensen took over with the help of her father and brother Paul. She was president of the hospital for 40 years.
Bellevue converted from being privately owned to not-for-profit in November 2001. Five years later, Ellis Medicine assumed responsibility for these services when Bellevue Woman’s Hospital surrendered its license in the wake of state healthcare reform mandates.
“The entire Ellis Medicine family joins with the Schenectady and the greater Capital Region community in mourning today upon the passing of Dr. Grace Jorgensen Westney,” Ellis Medicine President and CEO Paul Milton said in a statement. “Grace was a tireless advocate for bettering health care – and especially women’s health care – in our community and the impact that she has had on tens of thousands of people in this area cannot be overstated.”
Grace Jorgensen helped to integrate Bellevue into Ellis when the opportunity arose, Milton said. He explained she was a passionate fighter for women in the community and for ensuring they have access to high-quality and affordable healthcare.
“We will miss Grace’s trademark smile and steadfast commitment to her healthcare mission,” Milton said in a statement. “We are all better off because Grace was in our lives and in our community and, along with the entire Ellis Medicine family, we will redouble our efforts to continue to provide – in her memory — the compassionate and stalwart care that she provided so many.”
Jorgensen personally delivered thousands of babies in her career. In 1960 she saw that women needed safe pain relief during childbirth as most birthing mothers at the time were given none. She worked to show doctors safe effective pain relief was possible. Under her direction Bellevue was among one of the early hospitals to do mammography.
“She was a wonderful woman, and really one of the most influential and significant women in the Schenectady area over the second half of the 20th century,” Schenectady County historian Bill Buell said.
Grace Jorgensen, like her mother, believed an expectant mother should not need to be ill to go to the hospital, said Buell, a part-time reporter and columnist for The Daily Gazette.