Juneau: A doctor's best memories

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Although explorers, prospectors and missionaries generally top the lists of those who shaped Southeast Alaska into what it is today, a physician and an educator need to be given credit.

The physician is Lilian Collison Irwin (1867-1962) and the educator is her husband, Rev. George M. Irwin (d. 1911). A subdivision was named after Dr. Irwin, but there are few other traces of her presence in Juneau.

Lilian Collison was born on April 20, 1867, in Phoenix, New York. (Her first name is sometimes spelled with two L's, but that is incorrect.) After attending college and teaching for five years in New York, she moved west to LaGrande, Ore., in 1891 to teach. She was made principal of the school the following year - the first woman to hold the position. Shortly thereafter she met and married the Rev. George Irwin, then state superintendent of schools. The couple settled in Salem.

After her marriage, with the encouragement and financial support of her husband, she studied medicine at Willamette University. Her thesis at Willamette was on measles. She spent her third year of studies at Cooper Medical College in San Francisco. (Cooper later became Stanford University School of Medicine.) She was one of four women in a class of 35.

In Victorian times, medicine was not considered a proper subject for female students. She often found fingers and other grisly bits dropped into the pockets of her smock in the dissecting laboratory. However, she ignored these not-so-subtle hints about her choice of profession and continued with her studies. She graduated in 1898 with specialties in obstetrics and gynecology.

After graduation, Dr. Irwin practiced briefly in Portland. She then did postgraduate work in the East for a year. In 1900 she moved to Juneau, becoming the first and only woman physician in the Territory. At the time, Juneau had a population of 4,000 permanent residents - mostly mine workers, as well as a transient population of prospectors. There were two other physicians.

Strong and energetic, Dr. Irwin made her daily round of house calls on foot in all kinds of weather.

One house call that particularly stuck in her mind involved a long trip by foot and canoe to a Tlingit home. Rain was falling that wintry night, but wind prevented her from putting up her umbrella, for fear of upsetting the canoe.

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