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Nancy Blanche Jenison (July 8, 1876 – November 7, 1960) was a pioneering woman physician. Her sister was Madge Jenison, author, activist, and bookstore owner.
Nancy Blanche Jenison was born in Republic, Ohio, the daughter of Edward Spencer Jenison, a Chicago architect and civil engineer, and Caroline M. Spooner. Nancy Jenison's mother, Caroline M. Spooner (born 1851), — who lived in Chicago through all her active life, was passionately interested in education, the future of woman, the welfare of the Negro, and in America. —  Nancy’s father, Edward Spencer Jenison (1847-1922) was an architect who helped rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire. The Chicago City Directories revealed that he later became a civil engineer. Both parents came from Ohio but spent their lives in Chicago. Nancy was born on 8 July, 1876 in Republic, Ohio, where her mother retreated to give birth (Nancy had an older sister, Madge, and a younger brother). Called “Nannie” in her childhood, Nancy was confirmed at All Souls church, attended Greenwood Avenue School, and graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1893.
Nancy attended Wells College, a small women’s college in Aurora, New York, from 1894 to 1898. She was the Artistic Editor of the literary college publication and a member of the college Settlement Association. At age 22 (1898) she graduated cum laude with a B.A. in English. In the Wells tradition of planting an ivy to commemorate her class graduation, Nancy delivered the Ivy Day Oration. We can confirm that she successfully fulfilled the Wells College ideals that she described: “So we have had to learn to be self-dependent. Every task has been valuable only as it has strengthened our abilities and made us capable of greater things. There is always work to be done, some of it easy, some of it difficult. The world cannot stand still. Each generation must take up the work of its predecessor.” She taught Mathematics at the Kenosha High School for several years in Kenosha, Wisconsin (where her sister Madge taught English), before deciding to become a medical doctor. Her career spanned the period when women physicians, characteristically drawn from middle-class families, enjoyed high visibility in America’s reform movements that emphasized civic responsibility and social duty.
Nancy decided to become a doctor sometime between her two periods of graduate study at The University of Chicago. In 1899, she studied philosophy, but, during her second residence, in 1906, she took general inorganic chemistry in preparation for Johns Hopkins University. In 1907 she was admitted to the first-rate coeducational medical school which emphasized research in the basic sciences. Nancy’s late decision — she was 31 years old — was typical for women in medicine because this career choice required a woman to be very strong in character. Nancy became one of seven women in the 1911 class of 90 graduates and about the 67th woman to graduate from Johns Hopkins as a M.D.
Although hospital training was increasingly recognized as essential to a complete medical education, the only American hospital open to female interns was the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. This free clinic had been founded in 1853 by Elizabeth Blackwell, America's first woman medical doctor. From 1911 to 1913 Dr. Jenison interned at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Some medical women had salaried positions in schools or asylums, but most were in private practice. Dr. Jenison did both. In 1914 she became Clinical Assistant at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and at the Mount Sinai Dispensary. She was promoted in 1915 to Assistant Attending Physician at the New York Infirmary for Women and Children and from 1917 to 1926 she continued there as Attending Physician. Dr. Jenison published a case of blepharochalasis in a Russian Jewish boy immigrant that she observed from 1912 to 1914.
In 1916 Dr. Jenison joined the Cornell University Medical College, first as Assistant Physician, and then also as Clinical Instructor in Medicine, continuing both positions until 1929. From 1916 to 1919 she became also a Sheldon Fellow in Medicine at Cornell. From 1919 until 1921 or 1922 she worked as an Adjunct Assistant Visiting Physician at Bellevue.
Women physicians gravitated to what became “feminine” medical specialties, and Dr. Jenison, likewise, chose pediatrics. Her private practice, where she was affectionately addressed as “Dr. Nancy,” flourished for two decades in New York City. Women doctors favored the cities. A disproportionately large percentage of patients were female and women often preferred a woman doctor. One such patient wrote Dr. Nancy: “When I first met you thro Dr. Wakefield you remember, I thot you the most common sense physician and one of the nicest people I knew.” Dr. Nancy carried a correspondence with many of her patients after they had moved away and received photographs of the children she had treated as they grew up.
In 1915, the year that the American Medical Association (AMA) finally admitted women as members, a woman surgeon (Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen) founded the American Medical Women’s National Association, which Dr. Nancy joined instead. In 1917 she helped co-author their War Service Committee’s report. “We, the undersigned, offer our services to the Secretary of War as members of the Medical Reserve Corps, to be utilized to the fullest extent for home or foreign service, as indicated after our names, by the United States War Department in the present war. We desire that opportunities for medical service be given to us equal to the opportunities for medical service given to medical men, as members of staffs of base hospitals and otherwise, and that we be given the same rank, title, and pay given to men holding equivalent positions.”
Dr. Nancy took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to her. She traveled a great deal and even studied abroad. She never married. In 1931 a 55-year-old Dr. Nancy retired from practice to live in the countryside in Bound Brook, New Jersey. In 1939 she visited Guatemala. Her sketchbook indicates a budding interest in anthropology — a field in which female professionals had made great strides. At the age of 66, thanks to the fact that she knew Spanish and French, she studied for a year in Mexico City at the National School of Anthropology.
In researching her family history Dr. Nancy learned that her mother’s great-grandfather had owned slaves in Maryland. A dramatic incident occurred after her grandfather had moved to Kentucky with his slaves: “Sometimes during their early residence there the colored people planned an uprising and were to kill all their masters and families. They move a curve down the middle of the forehead as a membership sign. An old colored mammy who was of the bunch finally told our grandmother and she hid with her two little children till the disturbance was quelled.” Dr. Nancy moved to Washington, D.C. to work on improving race relations. She was as convinced that African Americans had equal rights with other citizens as she was of women’s rights.
Most likely Dr. Nancy met Dr. George E. Beauchamp (1906-1988), the Leader of the Washington Ethical Society, at civil rights events. She joined the Society in 1950, when she was 74 years old, and George and his wife Catherine became “family” to her. In 1951, when Catherine Beauchamp’s mother died, Dr. Nancy moved into the Beauchamps’ house, and accompanied them, well dressed and prompt, every week downtown to the Ethical Society for the Sunday services. No longer practicing medicine, except to help poor children in a clinic downtown or to give emergency assistance, Dr. Nancy served the Washington poor neighborhoods and the Ethical Society.
In 1954 the Society purchased their first Meeting House, realizing George Beauchamp’s dream, at 1822 Massachusetts Avenue, close to Dupont Circle. Knowledgeable about plant nurture, Dr. Nancy took charge of its front lawn, worked regularly on the monthly newsletter, served as a member of the Hospitality Committee, sold souvenirs from her travels to Latin America and Scandinavia at the Society’s “Fairs,” and sold plants after the Sunday services. Dr. Nancy became convinced that the Society should move into a larger building and she began to work toward that end. But since the building, a former family row house, was heavily mortgaged in tens of thousands of dollars, most members thought expansion unlikely. Nevertheless, Dr. Nancy established a building fund to retire the mortgage and sold live plants, shrubs, and ivy cuttings after the Sunday meetings to contribute, slowly but steadily, to this fund. After the Beauchamps retired to Florida in 1957, Dr. Nancy moved downtown to the Washington Fellowship House near the Society. Three years later she returned to New York City to care for her sister Madge. Soon after Madge’s death Dr. Nancy died at 84 in the Roosevelt Hospital. Edward L. Ericson, the Leader, conducted a memorial service for her in Washington. Only after the service was it discovered that Dr. Nancy — despite appearances — actually had a fortune!
When Nancy Blanche Jenison, M.D. died in 1960 (7 November), a brief obituary appeared for her in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Her death was mentioned in the Johns Hopkins Magazine (March 1961) without detail. Nothing appeared in the New York newspapers. Only The Washington Post (November 12, 1960, p. C3) carried a full announcement: “Memorial services for Dr. Nancy Jenison, who died... in New York City at the age of 85, will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Washington Ethical Society, 1822 Massachusetts av. N.W. “Dr. Jenison was a longtime resident of Washington... “She was raised in Chicago, where her father was a prominent architect, and was a graduate of Wells College, Aurora, N.Y. After teaching high school for several years, she went to Johns Hopkins University, and received her M.D. She practiced medicine in New York for some 20 years. Upon retirement she came to Washington, where she worked with various groups for improved race relations.”
Her last will and testament reflected her life. To Wells College Dr. Nancy bequeathed ten thousand dollars for scholarships to “native American and negro girls” until 1975, then to be used for any girl studying at Wells College. Her gift continues to provide general financial aid for students at Wells College today. The scholarship which her will established at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where she had already donated her stamp collection, can be found on the Internet: “Dr. Nancy Jenison Scholarship Fund. Through a generous bequest from Dr. Nancy Blanche Jenison, a member of the Class of 1911, a scholarship fund was established in 1963 to provide financial assistance for deserving women medical students.” Otherwise, her entire estate was left to “the Ethical Society where George and Catherine are members.” Dr. Beauchamp decided that her legacy should go into the building fund that Dr. Nancy had created. Once the will was resolved, the bequest paid off the old building, which was then sold to make a down payment on a new larger structure uptown. Thanks to her generosity, the Society could discontinue its dependence, since 1959, on annual Leadership subventions by the American Ethical Union. In 1964 the contemporary Washington Ethical Society building, designed by Cooper and Auerbach, opened on 16th Street near Kalmia Road in Shepherd Park.
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