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Irma West – Memories of an Early Woman Doctor By Jack Ostrich, MD

Comments or letters, which may be published in a future issue, should be sent to the author’s email or to e.LetterSSV Medicine@gmail. com.

IRMA WEST, MD, RECENTLY wrote down her “Memories” to share. They take the reader from her childhood in Canada to college in Oregon, then to medical school in Philadelphia and finally to a long and successful career as a public health doctor in California. In retirement, she became a very active member of SSVMS and helped to improve our medical museum. This brief article is based on her “Memories,” as well as a personal interview in early July. There was no clock in the upstairs bedroom in the little house where Irma Marie Calvert was born, so she is not sure of her exact time of birth, but knows it was around midnight on December 31, 1917. She suspects, however, that her father told the town clerk in Hespeler, Ontario, that she was definitely born prior to the stroke of midnight, so she qualified as a tax deduction for that entire year. Hespeler has since ceased to exist as an independent town. It merged with neighboring Galt to form the city of Cambridge, Ontario, about 40 miles west of Toronto. The name Hespeler lives on as a line of hockey equipment, and Galt, California, was so named by a Canadian immigrant, farmer John McFarland, who came to California from Galt, Ontario. Irma’s family also emigrated to the USA when she was 12 years old. Even then, she says, she wanted to be a physician. “[A medical career] was a dream on the back burner. The family moved to Bremerton, Washington, and I graduated in 1940 from Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where I majored in chemistry and took pre-med courses, just in case.” After college, she passed a science-based

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Sierra Sacramento Valley Medicine

Federal Civil Service exam and was given a job at the Moffett Field research facility as a “computer.” The facility was run by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) that had been founded in 1915, and in 1958 it morphed into NASA. At Moffett, Irma and lots of other scientifically-inclined young women were tasked to process an immense amount of data derived from aeronautical wind tunnel tests. She earned $1,800 a year and reports that she was able to live comfortably on that salary. She sought acceptance to medical school and was eligible to enter the University of Oregon School of Medicine, but was told that they were under orders to admit only men, due to the demands of the military which did not allow any female physicians in field hospitals. Female nurses were common in those settings, but not female doctors. So she went to Philadelphia to begin medical studies at Woman’s Medical College. Because of Federal anti-discrimination rulings in the 1970s, Woman’s Medical College merged with Hahnemann Medical College and both schools are now part of Drexel University College of Medicine. Upon entering her clinical years of medical school, Irma confronted two immediate problems, the first being a positive TB skin test, and also a positive throat swab for beta hemolytic strep. No student was allowed to do any clinical work until she had no evidence of infectious disease. Irma recalled having had scrofula (mycobacterial cervical adenitis) as a child, but she had no signs of strep pharyngitis. A thorough exam revealed no findings of TB,

2015-Sep/Oct - SSV Medicine  

Sierra Sacramento Valley Medicine is the official journal of the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society (SSVMS) and promotes the history,...

2015-Sep/Oct - SSV Medicine  

Sierra Sacramento Valley Medicine is the official journal of the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical Society (SSVMS) and promotes the history,...