Doc Susie

Doc Susie: The True Story of a Country
Physician in the Colorado Rockies

by Virginia Cornell
Manifest Publications, 1991

As a biographer myself, I was pleased when my book club decided upon Doc Susie for one of our monthly reads. Our members are always interested in learning more about our state and its history, so Susan Anderson, a member of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame, was a perfect choice. She arrived in Colorado circuitously as have most of us in our club.

Born in Indiana in 1870, Anderson moved with her brother John and her father, recently divorced, to a farm in Kansas where she graduated from high school in 1891. That same year, her father remarried and moved the family to a booming mining town in Colorado, Cripple Creek, where gold had been recently discovered. Her father wanted her to become a doctor and offered to pay for her education, so in 1893 she enrolled at the University of Michigan. Upon graduation in 1897, she returned to Cripple Creek where she became respected as a physician.

Unfortunately, in 1900 a series of catastrophes plagued Anderson. First, her beloved brother died of pneumonia, and then her fiance deserted her at the alter because of a conflict with her father. She moved to Denver to practice medicine but discovered that doctors glutted the market, and she could not make a living. To support herself, she took a job as a nurse in Greeley, emptying bedpans and taking orders from men less educated and less competent than she was. Worse, the tuberculosis she had contracted as a medical student intensified. She decided that the only way to save her own life was to live in the mountains where the clear air, cold climate, and high altitude could cure her.

Fraser, Co, 1907. Courtesy Denver Public Library

In 1907, Anderson moved to the the tiny mountain town of Fraser, Colorado, elevation 8,500 feet, where she concentrated on regaining her health, telling no one that she was a doctor. She moved into a shack right beside the railroad and spent the winter traversing the drifts in her snowshoes. By spring, her friend Cora, who owned the general store, declared that she looked as healthy as “a lumberjack” (42) and asked  her to help out clerking at the store. Eager to repay her friend for looking after her, she agreed. She maintained her anonymity until a young cowboy, who had heard rumors that she might be a doctor, rushed into the store asking for help to save Dave. Although hesitant to reveal her identity, she knew she had to go. When she arrived at the scene, she discovered that Dave was a horse. A crowd gathered as she stitched up the badly injured horse, and from that day on, she was Doc Susie to the townspeople and soon built up a successful practice.

Although Doc Susie was respected as a physician, especially renowned from her pneumonia cure, she was always nearly destitute as most of her patients were poor and only able to pay her with firewood or food. When the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel was dug through the mountains near Fraser in the 1920s, she doctored the many men who were injured in the hazardous work, and also took on the job of Grand County Coroner. This steady salary helped her survive. Doc Susie lived in Fraser the rest of her life, practicing medicine there for 60 years. She died at age 90 and is buried Mt. Pisgah Cemetery in Cripple Creek.

While Doc Susie’s story is interesting and inspiring in itself, author Virginia Cornell’s narrative approach is what makes the biography so compelling. Cornell grew up in Hideaway Park, two miles from Fraser where her parents established Miller’s Idlewild Inn near the West Entrance Portal to the Moffat Tunnel, which figures so prominently in the book . After she received her PhD in Renaissance English Literature from Arizona State University, she returned to manage her family’s ski resort as well as own and edit a small newspaper, the Winter Park Manifest. This fusion of Rocky Mountain resident, research scholar, and popular journalist combines to make Doc Susie one of the most readable and authentic biographies that I have encountered in a long time. First, Cornell knows firsthand the flora, fauna, climate, and personalities that make up small mountain communities, so the setting through which she moves her protagonist comes refreshingly alive. In this description, Cornell describes a barn dance. “Carrying baskets of fried chicken and potato salad into the bright interior of the barn she [Doc Susie] admired the clean-scrubbed pine floor, sprinkled with corn meal so the dancers could spin and shuffle even faster than if the floors had been newly waxed. Evergreen boughs and wildflowers were strung between stall braces. At one end, a planked platform for the musicians had been laid over tree stumps. Walking across the crunchy barn floor Doc enjoyed successive waves of smells: fresh pine, hay, rotted manure, neat’s-foot oil used on tack and harnesses, cinnamon cookies, lemonade”(118).

Cornell’s scholarly background taught her admirable research and writing skills, so she is able to weave into her narrative extensive investigation into early railroad history, pioneer doctors and their medical practices, the lumber industry, and the lives of women in early twentieth century along with personal interviews with residents of Fraser,  family letters and photographs, and even a diary by Doc Susie herself. The Moffat Tunnel near Fraser played an important role in the town’s history, and nursing the injured as well as serving as Coroner kept her informed of the dangers of the work: “the ‘official’ count of men killed so far, kept by the Denver newspapers, lulled the public into thinking that construction on the project was relatively safe. Only when accidents were spectacular did they excite the interest of the press. Doc Susie knew that the tunnel death toll was, in fact, much higher. . . .Reading in the Denver Post or Rocky Mountain News about serious accidents to workers–accidents almost invariably attributed to ‘their own carelessness’ or ‘unpredicable circumstances’–Susie could not repress a bitter smile” (191) .When Cornell states in her “Author’s Note” that she wound (literally) her way through miles of microfilm of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, I felt an immediate kinship because I had researched those same microfilms for almost those same years for my biography of Elinore Pruitt Stewart. Rounding out her credentials is her journalism background, for she made what could have been a dreary, scholarly work into a life story that appeals to a wide audience.

Cornell explains her approach, giving good advice to anyone interested in writing biography or even family history. “Although no events of consequence have been deliberately omitted,” she notes, “where facts were sketchy or sources disagreed, gaps have sometimes been bridged by informed speculation.”  She also comments that she compresses time to make the narrative more coherent and admits that she has “also ventured occasionally inside Susie’s mind.” When a biographer spends many years researching a subject, climbing inside that person’s mind and life is inevitable. Sometimes it is hard to step out of it! Cornell’s last paragraph in her “Author’s Note” is one all biographers should heed. “A thin line frequently separates readable biography from the biographical novel which uses life as a springboard for free invention of characters and events. I have tried scrupulously to stay on the legitimate biography side of that line, to confine myself to harmless embroidery of atmosphere and setting, and to present Doc Susie as she always presented herself: with unflinching honesty” (vii). In this, Cornell succeeds admirably.

Although my pile of want-to-read books is growing hopelessly out of control, I am intrigued by Cornell’s second biography, Defender of the Dunes: The Kathleen Goddard Jones Story, published in 2001. It documents the life of another strong woman, one who took on the Pacific Gas & Electric Company when she discovered that they were planning to build a nuclear power plant on her beloved Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes in California, one of the largest dune systems in the United States.

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