12:45 PM EST, December 10, 2012
Jean Wells was a strong individualist, a feminist path breaker and a strong-willed pediatrician at a time when women physicians were rare and not always held in high esteem.
In her Yale Medical School class, there were four women who repeatedly heard that they were taking the place of a deserving man. Of the four, one left when she married another student, another went into research, and only Wells and one other woman went on to practice medicine.
Wells practiced for 50 years, then worked part time at Hartford Hospital's pediatric emergency room.
A longtime resident of West Hartford, she died on July 27 at the age of 101.
Wells was born on June 18, 1911, and as a child was independent-minded and inclined toward medicine. Her mother, Anne Sweet Wells, had been a suffragette, and her father, Ernest A. Wells, was chief of surgery at Hartford Hospital.
Her father died when she was 16.
"She was never a passive, quiet, dainty little girl," her daughter, Kate Dixon, wrote in a published profile. "Jean was always in the middle of everything and in charge," and rode roughshod over her two younger brothers.
Wells also was very smart, and attended the Hopkins Street division of Hartford Public High School — the honors, college-bound track, which was considered by many to be better than the neighboring private schools. She graduated at 16, and went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she majored in zoology and was a member of the Shakespeare Society, memorizing hundreds of lines from plays and sonnets. She also rowed stroke — the pacesetter — on her class rowing team and was an avid skier.
After she graduated in 1932, she worked for a year in a public health laboratory, and then decided to go to medical school. Her father had graduated from Yale Medical School, so with characteristic brio, she drove to New Haven and presented herself for an interview and was admitted.
Though technically receptive to the presence of women in the medical school, the male faculty and students submitted the women to a certain degree of hazing — or discrimination. According to the stories she told her family, Dr. Harvey Cushing, a neurosurgeon who worked at the medical school, once told her that women did not belong in medicine. "I intend to stay, so you'd better get used to it," Wells retorted.
Her decision to concentrate on pediatrics was sealed when she saw a presentation of a case of a child who was very ill. The resident presenting the case, along with his superior, stated that the child was going to die and that nothing further could be done. The chief of pediatrics disagreed. "Never give up hope," he said.
Wells' mind was made up.
After graduation from medical school, she had several residencies in New York before moving back to Hartford. In 1937, she had married Joseph Hollinshead, a medical school classmate who specialized in internal medicine. They opened an office together in their large Victorian house on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford, and she was always known professionally as Dr. Wells.
During World War II, there was a need for doctors because so many male doctors had joined the armed services, and Wells was asked if she would take a courtesy staff position at Hartford Hospital. She refused, saying she would work only if she were given the same salary and benefits as a male doctor. With no recourse, the hospital offered her the job, and Wells became the first full-time female physician at the hospital. She also worked at Newington Children's Hospital in an unpaid position.
At Hartford Hospital, Wells took phone calls early in the morning from worried patients, and made house calls to children who were seriously ill in the morning, then visited her hospital patients. She also made an effort to educate the mothers of her patients so they could distinguish harmless symptoms from those that indicated something more serious, and encouraged them to nurse their babies — not a popular practice at the time.
She had office hours at home in the afternoons, and raised four children with assistance from a nanny.
Pushed by her, Hartford Hospital banned smoking from patients' rooms, from the neonatal unit and, eventually, from the entire pediatric wing. In addition to her active clinical practice, she did research into children's tuberculosis. In 1990, Hartford College for Women presented her with the Pioneer Woman Award.
Wells' incorporated her energy and drive into the way she raised her children. In summer, she rousted them out of bed with a verse that chided lay-a-beds who let a day "slip useless away." She paid them to memorize verses from Shakespeare, the Preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address.
Incorrect grammar was a major infraction. There were lessons and bulletin board reminders of what constituted good manners and her favorite sayings ("Ignorance is the curse of God"; "Knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven").
"Our mother was unconventional, and to us, at the time, often embarrassing," said her son, Hugh Hollinshead. "But now we are proud to boast about many of the things she taught us and did."
She took the children to concerts and the theater and museums, taught them the alphabet backwards ("useful when looking for your row in the theater," she would tell them), and the names of all the presidents — in order. She took them camping across the United States, following the steps of the early settlers in the South.
"She never raised her voice," said her daughter, Kate. "She was the most non-judgmental person. She would say you can do whatever you want to do, but you have been given a privileged life; you have to give back."
"Life in our family was always rich and encouraging, and lots of fun," said Hugh. "Our mother was the center of that life. She was the gentle yet persistent driving force in her efforts to make us 'good' people, and to make learning fun."
Wells was never idle and always curious. She took many courses at the University of Hartford's President's College. She made four Oriental rugs, and also caned chairs. She was in a book club for more than 50 years, and a member of the Town and Country Club, a Hartford club for women which her mother had helped to found.
She seemed to be able to identify every constellation in the sky, and took courses to become a Master Gardener. She tended gardens at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, where she was a member of the Friends Group. She read voraciously, and learned the basics of the language spoken in the many countries she visited: China, Indonesia, Russia, and Costa Rica.
In the early 1970s, she took every opportunity she could to travel extensively. She served with Project Hope, a hospital ship anchored off the coast of Brazil — after first studying Portuguese. She made good on her pledge to visit every state and continent, seeing not only penguins in Antarctica but the base camp in the Himalayas and the Ganges River. At 75, she hiked the 33-mile Milford Track in New Zealand.
At age 90, to her children's dismay, she regularly walked three miles a day around the West Hartford Reservoir, accompanied only by her Irish water spaniel. She continued to spend summers at a rustic cabin on Columbia Lake built by her father.
Wells died of natural causes. In addition to her four children, she is survived by 11 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.
At a celebration of her 100th birthday, she was not totally aware that she was the center of attraction. "One hundred years: can you imagine?" she said. "It's a good thing it's not me."
"At the end of the day, she paved the way for the rest of us to take many things we do for granted," said her daughter, Kate.