Finding Dr. Nicholson
Those who finish first get remembered.
We know Ameliea Earhart, Oprah Winfrey and Danica Patrick for their entries in male-dominated industries.
Add in a woman breaking the glass ceiling or in this case the barn door, it is worthy of telling her story.
A warning here, the following story does discuss suicide.
That’s what Colleen Bradford Krantz does in our Cover Story.
An online search for: “Who was the first female veterinarian in the United States,” generates top results that are a bit misleading.
No, it wasn’t Dr. Florence Kimbell.
Nor was it Dr. Elinor McGrath.
While both of these 1910 vet school grads helped pave the way for other women in a male-dominated field, the search should have favored a woman who graduated seven years earlier: Dr. Mignon Nicholson.
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “If you go worldwide, there were some earlier than her, but she was the first in the U.S…. Unfortunately…nobody really knew much about Mignon Nicholson.”
When Dr. Erickson, a professor emeritus with Kansas State University’s veterinary college, was asked once to give a speech about pioneering women in veterinary medicine, he found Mignon Nicholson’s story elusive enough that he asked a couple librarians for help. Together, they were able to pull together a rough picture of the 1903 graduate’s life.
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “Her childhood, as far as we know, was in Ravenswood. It’s a part of Long Island in… New York City. And all I know is she took care of the dogs and cats in the community. She read about dogs and cats, and she read about human medicine and surgery... She also married at a young age as well too, from what we know. And her first husband was a traveling salesman so she was home alone.”
It’s unclear what brought an end to the marriage, but, by the time she was in her early 20s, she had moved to Chicago. Defying the odds – and likely surprising administrators when she applied -- Nicholson was accepted into McKillip Veterinary College in 1900.
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “It was one of the largest private veterinary colleges of that day. It had some 1200 graduates I think at that time. McKillip was probably one of the more progressive schools."
The now-defunct Chicago college was co-founded in 1892 by a local horse farrier Matthew McKillip, who also had a veterinary practice. Although not owned by his descendants and now in a different location, his veterinary practice still exists today.
Besides admitting a woman, McKillip Veterinary College also had, four years earlier, admitted Thomas Madison Doram, believed to be the third African American to earn a professional veterinary degree in the U.S.
Erickson said there can be challenges in determining these “firsts” in veterinary medicine due to a failure to preserve journals and other documents from more than 40 now-defunct vet schools. In 2011, a University of Missouri veterinary school librarian’s study showed no indexed records could be found for 18 of these schools, which the author described as a loss of essential information in the history of veterinary medicine.
Although most of McKillip college’s journals have been lost to history, a handful did survive, including several at the University of Illinois-Urbana- Champaign, but they aren’t from the years when Nicholson was a student.
Erickson did find evidence in a Chicago city directory that Nicholson ran a small animal practice during her first year at McKillip, probably from her home. She added pet boarding during her second year.
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “The horse was the primary species that was studied at the time, although they did study dogs and cats and small animals. But it was unusual for someone to establish a small animal hospital.”
It’s possible some of her peers and professors were less than welcoming to a woman. An American Veterinary Medical Association article reported that one of Michigan State University’s earliest female vet students, Dr. Dorothy Segal, ran into barriers three decades later. According to the article, the dean called Segal and the six other female students into his office and told them to “go back to the kitchen.”
Segal, at least, didn’t listen. And today, women account for about 80 percent of U.S. veterinarian college students.
As Nicholson neared her graduation, she was featured in a 1902 article in the Chicago Tribune, which declared: “No other woman, so far as known, has done this kind of work.”
Within six months of graduating, in September of 1903, she married a man named John Jackson, co-owner of a Chicago restaurant called Becker & Jackson. It’s unclear if she continued practicing after her marriage but later news articles would imply she was struggling with alcohol addiction. Her marriage fell apart. Finally, just three years after becoming the first female to earn a veterinarian degree in the U.S., her life came to a tragic end.
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “She’d gone to the café to try to patch things up again and he said, ‘It’s no use.’ They had gone back together once before and she’d gone back to drinking again and he said it’s no use. So she stood up and pulled out a resolver and shot herself, right there in the cafe.”
Back then, Dr. Erickson points out, alcohol and mental health treatment was less advanced than today, and her struggles should not diminish her accomplishments
Dr. Howard Erickson, Kansas State University: “I would just say that there is suicide in all professions today, and it happens in veterinary medicine too…You gotta admire her that she had enough, you know, grit to go through the curriculum at McKillip.”
By Colleen Bradford Krantz, firstname.lastname@example.org