Partner Margaret “Jo” Prouty, Martha Peterson

Queer Places:
Waucheeta Trail, Madison, WI 53711
Fairview Cemetery Cambridge, Furnas County, Nebraska, USA

Dr. Maxine Bennett on Matterhorn in 1953. She returned to the mountain decades later with her partner Martha Peterson. UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN–MADISON ARCHIVES IMAGE 2017S00548Eleanor Maxine Bennett (July 14, 1915 - December 23, 2008) served as an Otolaryngologist and Professor Emeritus of the University Medical School, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

Eleanor Maxine Bennett was born July 14, 1915 in Beaver City, Nebraska to Irvin Allen Bennett (1883-1969) and Mary Fay (Polly) Kline Bennett (1885-1986). She grew up a tomboy in western Nebraska. She graduated from Cambridge High School in 1932 and attended Hastings College, a Nebraska Presbyterian school, for four years, graduating in 1936. Bennett taught high school algebra, geometry, biology, general science, physical education and served as assistant principal at Ansley, Nebraska from 1936-1937. She would later observe that most of her high school classmates went on to be farm wives or housewives.

In 1938, Bennett entered the University of Nebraska College of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska. She said she had grown up “never having known a woman physician.” At the University of Nebraska Medical School she was one of three women in her class. While there, she formed a close friendship with Dr. Margaret “Jo” Prouty, her first longtime partner. She graduated in 1942 and relocated to Madison, Wisconsin for her internship at Madison General Hospital. She took a seven-year internship specializing in ear, nose, and throat medicine. During her internship, Bennett assisted Dr. Wellwood Nesbit, an otolaryngologist, in several surgeries, after which Nesbit invited Bennett to be his assistant in his office and private practice. Bennett accepted his offer and worked with Nesbit until she qualified for her medical board exams in 1949, which she took and passed in New York City.

Meanwhile Jo Prouty joined the Department of Pediatrics at Madison’s Jackson Clinic, where she was the only female doctor. Together the two built and shared a house on Lake Waubesa, south of the city.

Bennett’s nickname, “Matterhorn,” came from her many mountain-climbing experiences. While in medical college, she and Prouty worked as summer mountaineering counselors at a camp in Colorado. The pair climbed mountains together for years, including Mount Rainier and the Grand Tetons. In 1949, the two ascended the Matterhorn in Switzerland with crampons and ice axes. Bennett later recalled getting up at two o’clock in the morning to climb before the sun hit the glaciers and reaching the top by eleven a.m. Their joint activities also included membership in the Altrusa Club, a women’s civic organization in Madison.

In 1950, Bennett became the Medical Director of the Bureau for Handicapped Children (BHC) in the Wisconsin Department of Education. Bennett left the BHC in 1953 and became a full time faculty member at the University Medical School, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. She was an associate Professor in the Department of Surgery, Division of Otolaryngology.

By 1953 she was working full time at the UW Medical School in the Department of Surgery, where she was the only woman in the department. She later observed about women in medical schools, “Those that succeeded needed an exterior toughness to be accepted by many of their male peers.”

Martha Peterson developed an important relationship with Dr. Maxine Bennett at the UW Medical School. When Peterson was being hired as the UW dean of women in 1956, President Fred told Bennett, his colleague, that she should get to know Peterson. Fred encouraged the two to meet because, as Bennett remembered, he said, “I think you should get to know her because Kansas and Nebraska are neighbors.”

The relationship that formed and blossomed in the late 1950s between Bennett and Martha Peterson did not go unnoticed in these pre-Stonewall days. A UW news release featuring staff traveling during the summer of 1959 informed folks that “Dean of Women Martha Peterson and Dr. Maxine Bennett, are touring Scandinavia.” The Madison society magazine Select published a 1964 feature on the “Halfway House,” jointly owned by Peterson and Bennett. The article noted, “It all began three years ago when ‘Max’ and Martha purchased a 200-foot frontage on the Lake Michigan side of Door County’s ‘thumb,’ two miles from Jacksonport.” Noting that “both hold responsible positions in Madison,” the article commented that Bennett and Peterson’s house was furnished with antiques, many of which they had refinished on their own workbench. A picture showed them in matching University of Wisconsin sweatshirts restoring antiques. Later the two would open an antique shop in Door County.

In 1963, Bennett became the chairperson of the Ear, Nose, and Throat program at the University Medical School (Madison), advancing to the position of Professor. During this time, Bennett also became active in the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology, Home Study Faculty, became a member of the examining board, and in 1967 became the first woman accepted into the American Laryngological, Rhinological and Otological Society, also known as the Triological Society.

When Peterson went to Barnard in New York in 1967, Bennett took a sabbatical year during which she also lived in New York and worked at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. After a few years, Peterson returned to Wisconsin as president at Beloit College.

In 1968-1969, Bennett spent a sabbatical year working at Columbia University's Medical School with Dr. Daniel Baker, chairman of Otolaryngology. Bennett traveled with a group of Otolaryngologists to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Budapest in 1970.

Bennett retired from the University Medical School at Madison in 1978 and was given emerita status and recognized by the Wisconsin Medical Society as a fifty-year member. During that same year, she was awarded the Emeritus Professor of Surgery Division of Otolaryngology. After retiring, Bennett became involved as the secretary and president of the Wisconsin Otolaryngology Society and vice-President and chairman of the Middle Section of the Triological Society.

Upon Bennett’s retirement in the summer of 1978, a surprise dinner party was held at the Madison Club for fifty friends. “Among them,” the paper noted, “was Miss Martha Peterson, New York City, president of Barnard College.” When Peterson was serving on the board of directors for Exxon, she noted about other members, “It was awfully hard when they came with their wives” to board meetings and trips, because it was often presumed she had no partner to bring. When Peterson was told she could bring somebody, somebody, Bennett accompanied her, and together they witnessed the launching of an Exxon tanker in Japan.

In 1988, Bennett received the Wisconsin Medical Alumni Association Emeritus Professor Faculty Award. In 1992, she became a member of the State Medical Society Fifty Years club for her fifty years as a doctor.

In 2006, Peterson’s obituary in the New York Times observed that she was “survived by her companion Dr. Maxine Bennett.” The Madison obituary referred to “her longtime friend and partner, Maxine Bennett, MD,” and noted that they “shared many friends [and] world travels and experienced life to its fullest.” Appropriately, the notice stated, “She was a wonderful role model for young women.”


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