“In good weather you’d see Jenny Murphy bicycling around town on her calls with her little satchel over her shoulder. In bad weather she’d take her horse and buggy.”
Argus Leader – 1951
Dr. Jenny Murphy flipped the collar up on the thick, gray coat she was wearing and tightened the grip she had on the medical bag in her lap. It was below freezing when she left Yankton, South Dakota, in November 1894, on her way to a homestead in Nebraska, and temperatures continued to plummet. An anxious farmer had burst into her office in the afternoon and pleaded with her to accompany him to his home to help his wife deliver their first child. The man’s farm could only be reached by crossing the Missouri River.
Dr. Murphy followed the expectant father to his canoe anchored at the river’s edge and climbed inside. The water was cold, and chunks of ice clung to the shoreline. The farmer pushed off from the bank and quickly paddled into the middle of the water. He avoided most of the chunks of ice pulled along downstream with the strong current. Just before they reached the other side of the river, a massive hunk of ice slammed into the boat, and it overturned. The doctor and the farmer were dumped into the water.
Still holding on to her medical bag, Dr. Murphy fought her way to the bank of the river and onto dry land. The frazzled farmer also managed to get out of the water. He gave the doctor a moment to recover from the near drowning experience before hurrying her along to his homestead. When the pair arrived at the farmhouse, Dr. Murphy’s clothes were still wet from the swim in the river. Peeling off her coat and apron, she rushed to the bedside of the farmer’s wife just in time to help her deliver a healthy baby.
It’s doubtful Jenny Murphy imagined the extreme lengths she would have to go to care for patients when she decided to become a doctor. The path women had to take to achieve a medical degree in the 1880s was difficult. Women were not welcome in the profession. Men so opposed the female presence at medical schools that fighting the idea that women weren’t smart enough to be physicians was like swimming upstream in a strong current. The years Jenny struggled to go to school to become a doctor helped prepare her for the grueling but rewarding career.
Jenny C. Murphy was born on February 20, 1865, in Alleghany, Pennsylvania, to Major Hugh and Violet Murphy. Jenny and her family moved to Yankton, South Dakota, in 1878 when she was thirteen years old. In addition to attending school and helping her parents care for her brothers and sister, she also worked as a bookkeeper at a lumber yard. A portion of the funds was used to support her family with the remainder was set aside for school. Jenny knew early on she wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t until she took a job in Dr. James Buchannan’s office that she realized she wanted to pursue studies in medicine. The time spent at Dr. Buchannan’s practice handling his billing exposed her to a myriad of patients with an assortment of ailments, all of which she wanted to learn how to treat.
The cost to attend medical school was exorbitant. Jenny knew she’d have to find a better paying job to save enough money. She decided teaching school was her best option, and, after graduating from high school in 1883, she took the teaching exam. Shortly after passing the test, she applied for a position at Grove School in Yankton County. The education board hired her, and, in the fall of 1883, she began the first year of a five-year career as a teacher.
According to records at the Yankton County Historical Society, Jenny Murphy was exceptional at her job. She had a firm and organized teaching style that made her popular with both her students and with school administrators. Within a year of being hired at Grove School, officials at the grammar school in Brookings, South Dakota, persuaded her to work for them.
During her time at the Fishbeck School District, the region was struck by a massive snowstorm. The blizzard occurred on January 12, 1888 and killed more than five hundred people. Many of those who perished were children who were at school when the fierce blizzard hit. Jenny’s class had just come inside from recess when the storm occurred. Gale-force winds shook the schoolhouse, and rapidly dropping temperature turned the interior of the building into an icebox. Whiteout conditions made it impossible to see anything outside. Jenny gathered her class together by the potbelly stove and covered them with the few coats, blankets, and rugs she could find. She wouldn’t allow boys and girls to leave the premises until the danger passed. According to an interview Jenny gave years after the incident, she had the students “create a human chain outside so they could tie a string from the schoolhouse to the woodshed, so they could get wood but not get lost in the storm.”
During the evening, Jenny kept the children’s minds off the harsh conditions outdoors by writing letters, singing, and playing games. At bedtime when all was quiet and the teacher and students were trying to fall asleep, they heard a faint cry for help in the wind. Jenny and a few of the older pupils stood in the open door of the school calling out to the weak voice, but there was no response. When the storm passed, the frozen body of a man seeking shelter was discovered nearby.
By the end of her term, Jenny had saved enough money to attend college. She applied and was accepted at the Hahnemann Medical School. Located in Chicago, the school opened in 1860 and became coeducational in 1871. The all-male college administrators informed Jenny if she failed to finish her first term at the top of her class she would be asked to leave. Jenny was serious about her studies. In addition to working a full-time job to pay for her living expenses, she devoted herself to getting high marks. She did well and was invited back to complete her sophomore year.
The long hours poring over medical books and long hours on the job were exhausting for Jenny. She returned to South Dakota after her sophomore year to spend the break visiting with her family and resting. It wasn’t until she was home for a few days that she realized she was ill. She was suffering with tuberculosis. Jenny’s mother cared for her daughter during the recess, and, by fall when she was scheduled to return to school, her health had been fully restored.
Jenny graduated with honors from college in 1893. Coincidentally, that was the same year as the first World’s Fair in Illinois. Included among the exhibits and attractions was a state-of-the-art hospital. Jenny did her internship at the facility. The hospital specialized in helping cardiac children. At the conclusion of the six-month event, Dr. Murphy returned to Yankton to open her own practice. Mindful of the advancements made in the medical profession, she decided to close her office between 1896 and 1898 to travel to New York to gain additional training in women’s diseases and children’s illnesses.
In 1898, Jenny Murphy joined practices with two other prominent physicians in Yankton. The October 21, 1951, edition of the Argus Leader reported that shortly after opening the office she shared with Dr. E. W. Murray, she became “instrumental in the formation of the town’s earliest society of medical men and named the organization’s secretary.” Dr. Murphy helped found the first hospital in the area.
The life of a female country doctor was a rugged one. Jenny’s territory radiated some twenty-five miles or more in every direction of Yankton. Enduring rain and snowstorms and traveling over rocky terrain to reach the sick and hurting was indelibly etched into her memory. “As if it were yesterday,” she recalled in an interview with a Sioux Falls newspaper about the difficult time she had getting to her patients. “I can still see the hack [coach] that daily met the train each afternoon, laboriously travel passed my house, mired to the hub, requiring two spans of horses to get it to the station at all.”
Jenny was proud of the team that hauled her coach through the Yankton countryside. “Their faithfulness and intelligence were amazing,” she told the newspaper reporter. “Many times, I have awakened in my rig, safe and sound in the barn after an all-night ride from some country confinement case.” Eventually, the doctor traded in the horse and buggy for a car.
Dr. Jenny Murphy had a distinctive look. She was a thin woman who dressed in long black or gray skirts, black jackets, and white blouses. Her hair was fixed in a tight bun, and she routinely topped her outfit off with a man’s black hat. She had a masculine way of walking, and her actions were manly as well. She was outspoken and stern and unafraid to take on cases from which others would shy.
Yankton County, like much of the rest of the country in 1917, was dealing with a flu epidemic. The illness claimed thousands of lives. Flu sufferers in Dr. Murphy’s care survived the outbreak. She attributed the success rate to a prescribed combination of whiskey and camphorated goose grease followed by plenty of rest. The process used to create the medication involved boiling the goose fat in a skillet and mixing in cubes of solid camphor. The concoction was then applied to the chest and aching joints.
“In 1919, Dr. Murphy was widely publicized as the first woman ever to garner a seat on a city commission,” the October 21, 1951, edition of the Argus Leader reported. “She was elected commissioner of streets in Yankton, and during her five years on the board was instrumental in the early day cleanup of taverns, other members of the board noted.
“Her work as Degree of Honor medical examiner in South Dakota began in 1900, and she became the national medical examiner in 1914. In 1922, she dropped her medical practice to devote full time to the organization, until 1940, when Dr. Murphy retired from all duties.”
Dr. Jenny Murphy passed away on November 3, 1959, at the age of ninety-four.
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