Judy Waters: Pioneering Pittsfield doc broke barriers, defied norms

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FITCHBURG — Compassion was missing among many when a GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act recently threatened health care coverage for those most in need, prompting the American Medical Association to voice opposition. A pioneering woman physician who made her home in Pittsfield and for whom compassion was a way of life, would have taken courageous measures, no doubt, to stop such a bill today.

The month of August marks the birthday of Dr. Alfreda Withington, who graduated medical school despite prejudice against women and who came to settle in Pittsfield in 1891, for good cause.

Alfreda Withington was born in Pennsylvania in 1861. Her father was a Maine teacher; her mother had Massachusetts ties. Surrounded by books as a child, Alfreda's mother encouraged her to overcome obstacles in life.

Withington matriculated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. and Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary, though denied a position there. At a time when women were discouraged from studying medicine, she persisted, traveling to Prague, where she circumvented gender bias and learned to perform surgery.

With a 20 year practice in Pittsfield, comments on her gender circulated at first. She learned to ski in order to visit patients in snowbound homes, often treating the families of immigrant mill workers. But it was tuberculosis that brought her to the Berkshires (pinemountainsettlement.org).

When widespread tuberculosis marked the 19th and early 20th centuries, Withington lost family members to the disease, events which helped spur her study of medicine. Her own doctor recommended she move to an "eastern location of some altitude" to address a small problem in of one of her lungs. She chose the Berkshire hills, knowing of the region's natural beauty, and set up a practice, listed at 163 South Street, as described in her book, "Mine Eyes Have Seen; a woman doctor's saga."

It was not unusual for tuberculosis patients to seek higher altitudes, with the view this would aid survival. Across the country, sanatoriums were created to isolate and treat patients. Health insurance coverage as we know it today was nonexistent.

Pittsfield, in addition to treating its own, had become a destination for a number of tuberculosis patients, as sanatoriums grew around Massachusetts. Springside Sanatorium was listed in the American Medical Directory (with the city's elevation cited). A key member of the Pittsfield Anti-Tuberculosis Association, Alfreda Withington worked closely with the organization, which arranged for the use of a farmhouse on Lebanon Avenue in West Pittsfield. Surrounded by 53 acres, the farm was converted to a tuberculosis sanatorium for up to 20 summer patients, fewer in winter. The site was expanded with a new hospital funded by a gift of $100,000 from Pittsfield's Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, in memory of her husband, Dr. Frederick Coolidge, who died of tuberculosis ("History of Pittsfield, Mass.,1876-1916, Boltwood").

In Pittsfield, Dr. Withington eventually found generosity, kindness, and support among colleagues, friends, patients. Like many Berkshire residents, she was affected in 1917 when the country entered World War I and local families helped out with war efforts (The Berkshire Athenaeum currently offers an exhibit on Pittsfield during the first World War). She left her practice in 1918 to help treat immigrant and refugee tuberculosis victims outside of Paris, close to battle lines.

Returning to Pittsfield, changed by the war experience, she took a break from conventional practice. Accepting a position in remote coal mining Kentucky, she rode horseback in rugged terrain to visit patients.

Alfreda Withington had helped save lives and end suffering of many in the Berkshires. She soon found the Pittsfield community to be a good match, a compassionate city with values reflecting the common good. She chose family practice over surgery so that she could experience getting to know her patients. She dedicated herself to underserved, vulnerable, rural communities. Her eyeopening memoir describing her life in Pittsfield and beyond is available in Berkshire Athenaeum's Local History department.

On the other side of the embattled national health care debate are the compassion and courage of those who are on the front lines of health care every day, working in hospitals, nursing homes, or caring for loved ones at home. If here today, Dr. Withington would no doubt be a strong voice for the health care cause, perhaps even running for office, still breaking barriers for women.

After dedicating her life to the most vulnerable, her fortitude would be a valuable asset in the fight to finally make healthcare available to all. Alfreda Withington, who defied the norms of her time, died in Pittsfield in 1951.

Judy Waters, a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident, has taught in ESOL immigrant programs, working with Massachusetts' adult and community learning services.


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