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Fannie Dunn Quain


On this date in 1909, the North Dakota Legislature passed a bill to establish a Tuberculosis Sanatorium at San Haven. One of the people responsible for this was 29 year-old Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain. She was North Dakota’s first homegrown female doctor.

Fannie Dunn paid her way through medical school by doing bookkeeping, teaching school, working for a surveyor and as a printer’s devil and also cleaning houses. She even organized a concert tour for a Swedish group. Also during this time period, Miss Dunn ran for Burleigh County Superintendent of Schools. But the powerful McKenzie political machine rigged the ballot boxes with false bottoms stuffed with ballots for the competition. She lost the election, so she concentrated on her education, and in 1898, she received her Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Michigan.

Shortly after she came back to North Dakota, she heard one of McKenzie’s men brag about how they cheated her out of the election, so she ran for the office again. This time, United States Marshals oversaw the voting process, and she won. McKenzie’s men protested, saying her medical degree wasn’t a good enough education for a school superintendent. So she was tested by the State Office of Public Instruction, got a valid teacher's certificate... and victoriously accepted her post.

Life as a pioneer doctor wasn’t easy. Trying to reach her patients was a significant challenge, and she used any moving object to get where she needed to go. In one instance, she got a telegram that one of her patients had been treated for acute appendicitis near Dickinson. An old country doctor had decided the man should be sent to Brainerd, Minnesota for treatment. Dr. Fannie knew it would take too long; the man would die unless she operated on him immediately.

The problem was that he was already en route by train. She would have to get from Bismarck to Mandan before the train stopped, but the only way over the Missouri River was a railroad bridge.

She quickly located a railroad handcar, but the section boss would only let her use it if he was on board. She agreed, thinking he would help her pump – but he was drunk and intended to only enjoy the ride. There was no way for her to pump the four handles alone the six miles to Mandan. But three high school boys saw her problem, jumped on board and manned the other three handles. Uphill and against the wind, they managed to make it three miles when they realized the train was already at Mandan and was now pulling out.

Undeterred, they pumped until they were within 100 feet of the oncoming train, then threw the handcar and its drunk passenger off the tracks and ran. As the last car passed, people on the back platform grabbed her hands and pulled her aboard. She located her patient on board, and when they reached Bismarck, she took him to the hospital where she operated and saved his life.

Later, after she married Dr. Eric Quain, Dr. Fannie switched her focus from active practice to the needs of children and the escalating cases of tuberculosis in the state. Ultimately, she and Dr. James Grassick lobbied the state legislature, which led to the TB Sanatorium being built in the Turtle Mountains. She also established the first baby clinic in the state.

Dr. Fannie Dunn Quain died in Bismarck on February 2nd, 1950; she was seventy.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm