Kate Pelham Newcomb

Young Kate Pelham
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, Kate’s mother and baby brother died when Kate was very young. She thought that it wasn't right that she should lose her mother. How could she stop that from happening to other children? Kate would become a doctor and work to save people’s lives.
But back in the early 1900s, women weren’t treated as equal to men. Kate’s father didn’t think being a doctor was a proper career for a young lady. He thought Kate would be better off doing something else with her life. He wouldn't allow Kate to become a doctor.

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.

Kate achieved her dream and opened her own practice in Detroit in 1919. That’s where she met her future husband, Bill. She and Bill were married in 1921. Bill had a problem with his lungs. The polluted air of Detroit was making him sick. He had to move to a place with cleaner air. Bill moved to the small town of Boulder Junction in northern Wisconsin. Bill’s health mattered  more to Kate than her clinic, so she left Detroit to be with him.

Snowshoes? Sno' Problem!
When Kate moved, she left behind her city life and her doctor’s license. She chopped wood, hauled water, cooked meals, and took care of her family. During that time, 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!

Kate's Snow Machine

Dr. Kate could not be stopped. She canoed icy rivers, walked miles in snowshoes, and drove through ferocious 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.

Mail Call!

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 Mrs. Arthur 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.

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.
Outside the New Hospital

Read more about Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb in the Badger Biographies book Dr. Kate: Angel on Snowshoes, available now from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. All photos courtesy of the Dr. Kate Museum in Woodruff, Wisconsin.