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Kate Pelham Newcomb

Kate Pelham Newcomb | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeYoung Kate Pelham

Young Kate Pelham

 


Note: This is a grade-level appropriate biographical essay about a significant figure from Wisconsin's past.


What do you want to be when you grow up? A journalist? A computer programmer? Kate Pelham wanted to be a doctor. What inspired her? In Kate Pelham's case, it was a personal tragedy that changed her life.

Kate Pelham was born in 1885. Sadly, her mother and baby brother died when Kate was very young. She didn’t think it was right that she lost her mother. Kate decided to become a doctor and work to save people’s lives.

Kate’s father didn’t think being a doctor was a proper career for a young woman. He wouldn’t allow Kate to become a doctor. Kate became a teacher instead, but she wasn’t very happy. When her stepmother died, Kate had to return home to take care of her family. Finally, in 1913, her father gave his approval. Kate left home and went to medical school.

EnlargeThomas Pelham

Thomas Pelham

Kate's Father, Thomas Pelham

In 1911, Kate became a teacher instead, but she wasn’t very happy. In fact, she didn't even get to be a teacher for long. When her stepmother died, Kate had to return home to take care of her family. That made her even more miserable. Finally, after 8 long years, her father finally saw how badly Kate wanted to be a doctor. He gave his approval, and Kate went to medical school.

In 1917, Kate opened her own medical practice in Detroit, Michigan, where she met her future husband, Bill. Bill had a problem with his lungs. The polluted air was making him sick, so Bill moved to the cleaner air of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. Bill’s health mattered more to Kate than her clinic. Kate left behind Detroit and her doctor’s license to be with him.

EnlargeAn image of Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb wading through the snow, wearing snow shoes.

Dr. Kate's Snowshoes

Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb would visit her patients in the snow, even in blizzards.

When Kate moved, she left behind her city life. She chopped wood, hauled water, cooked meals, and took care of her family. In 1928 their son Tommy was born. One day, Tommy hurt his finger pretty badly. Kate cleaned it up and took Tommy to the town doctor. Just by looking at the expertly wrapped finger, Dr. Torpy knew Kate had talent. He told Kate she was wasting her skills as a doctor.

Late one winter night, Dr. Torpy called Kate. A woman was very sick and Dr. Torpy couldn’t get to her. Kate would have to go. Even though Kate had no medical license, off she went through the blizzard. She saved that woman’s life. When she got back to see Dr. Torpy, she told him she was going to Madison to renew her license. Dr. Kate was back!

EnlargeDr. Kate Pelham Newcomb driving her "snow machine," a kind of vehicle for wading through snow.

Dr. Kate's Snowmachine

Dr. Kate even had her own vehicle for getting through northern Wisconsin blizzards.

Once, when her canoe sunk in an icy river, Dr. Kate waded to shore and trekked cross-country the rest of the way. She delivered over 3,000 babies and never lost a mother. Dr. Kate became a hero to the people of northern Wisconsin.

Kate dreamed of doing even more. The nearest hospital was miles away from Kate's hometown. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have one nearby?

One day, Kate saved the life of Josephine Rubloff. The Rubloffs were very wealthy, and they asked what they could do for her. Kate told them about her dream of building a hospital. The Rubloffs donated $1,000. Soon, the whole town was involved in raising money for the hospital.

Local high school students started the Million Penny Parade and raised thousands of dollars. Kate appeared on the popular TV show This Is Your Life. Money started coming in from all over the United States! Lakeland Memorial Hospital opened its doors in 1954.

EnlargeDr. Kate Pelham Newcomb walking down the steps of the newly-constructed Lakeland Memorial Hospital

Lakeland Memorial Hospital

Dr. Kate managed to raise enough funds to build a hospital and in 1954 Lakeland Memorial Hospital opened its doors.

Dr. Kate died in 1956, only two years after her hospital was completed. She fell and broke her hip, and her heart gave out during surgery. Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb changed the lives of the people of Wisconsin. You can visit the museum dedicated to telling her life story in Woodruff, Wisconsin, near the original site of the hospital she helped build.


Download the Dr. Kate coloring sheet!

Reading Level Correlations

  • Level S (4th Grade) 

Learn More

Learn more about Kate Pelham Newcomb from the Badger Biographies book "Dr. Kate: Angel on Snowshoes" available from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

See articles, essays, photos and more.

Learn about the museum devoted to the life and history of Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb.