The legendary Dr. Anna W. Perkins may be gone, but she’s not forgotten
The year was 1928. Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Mickey Mouse made his debut in “Steamboat Willie”. Only eight years earlier the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and a young doctor boarded a Hudson River Day Line steamboat in Manhattan on a voyage to the Capital Region – Westerlo in the Helderbergs – that would span a remarkable 65 years.
Anna Perkins was born in Newport, RI, was educated in private schools, graduated from Radcliffe, earned her M.D. at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and completed her internship at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. In 1928 this young woman of means proceeded to say goodbye to her cosmopolitan and Ivy League background to become an indefatigable country doctor. A country doctor so irrepressible and resolute that although she never married and never returned to Manhattan, Manhattan came to her when the New York Times interviewed her in 1984 – when she was 85 years old and still making house calls – which she did until 1991.
A legend at my bedside
More than one of the house calls Doc Perkins made was to our home in Clarksville. Back in the late 1950s, my father relocated his pharmacy from Center Square in downtown Albany to that little hamlet to serve the rural “Hilltowns” where there was no pharmacy. Since Dr. Perkins was the only doctor in the region, and Lange’s Pharmacy was the only apothecary, we got to know the little, white-haired sparkplug of a doctor very well. Although her usual fee for a house call was $5.00 – as late as 1990 – she always gave us a professional courtesy discount. So when she visited my bedside one afternoon in 1959, her fee was $2.00.
“Whooping cough,” she declared after an exam of about 10 seconds. “You won’t be going to school for six weeks, young man.” Six weeks?! I’m in heaven, I thought. Oh, how wrong I was. Whooping cough, better known today as pertussis, is much worse than school – even for a seventh grade boy. Uncontrollable coughing fits, followed by paroxysms and upchucking several times a day are more hateful than middle school – especially since teachers sent homework to me every day anyway! Hey, no fair!
“Honored, dedicated and revered”
Dr. Perkins called on and treated the sick in their far-flung homes across the Helderbergs regardless of the conditions. In 1974, Union College honored her with an Honorary degree of Doctor of Sciences with the citation, “In weather fair and foul, by day and by night, you have for fifty years brought medical care and human comfort to a rural region made fortunate by your dedication.”
Doc Perkins practiced until illness forced her to retire at age 92. Albany Medical College sponsors the Anna Perkins Scholarship “presented in appreciation of Dr. Anna Perkins’ dedication, skill and devotion throughout her many years of practice devoted to family medicine. The award is presented to a student planning to pursue a career in family medicine.”
Although the little physician with the strong handshake passed away in 1993 at the age of 93, Hilltown people still tell the stories of her tenacity. One of the favorite tales tells of the time a ferocious winter storm prevented Doc Perkins from driving to a sick child one night. Not to be deterred, she hitched a ride with a snowplow, and when the snow became too much for the plow to fight through, she buckled on her snowshoes and trudged the rest of the way to the little girl’s bedside.
Similar stories of her remarkable determination remain common in the Helderbergs. From the older folks who can remember Doc Perkins accepting payment in eggs, milk, and chicken during The Great Depression, to her deferring payment “until you get back on your feet.” Most often told are bad weather stories because the Hilltowns are infamous for their mountainous snowdrifts. But somehow, like the Little Engine That Could, Doc Perkins fought her way through them. One old photo shows her in a 1930s vintage automobile driving through a one-lane canyon of snow banks that are taller than either the doctor or her car.
Perhaps the 1920s awoke something in many women. Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, the passage of Women’s Suffrage, the Jazz Age, Flappers, Amelia Earhart, Virginia Woolf, Georgia O’Keefe, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Sanger, Margaret Mead, Bessie Smith, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Isak Dinesen in Africa. Whatever impelled them and Anna Perkins to do something daring and different tickles intriguingly at the imagination.
The small clapboard house she built in Westerlo in 1929 served as both her home and office until the very end. And, oh yes, her fee for delivering a baby was $25.00.
Ed. Lange writes “Guy Stuff” monthly for Capital Region Living. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.