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Helena Wink, Pioneer Doctor

8/3/2005:

Helena Knauf Wink arrived in Jamestown on this date in 1883; she was the first woman doctor in North Dakota. She was strong, and she looked it – tall and slender with deep-set piercing eyes. She was resourceful, generous, honest and fair. Her fees were small – sometimes free.

Helena graduated from eighth grade with a certificate for teaching elementary school, and from her salary of $13 a month, she saved enough to go to medical school at the University of Michigan. She graduated three years later and moved to Dakota Territory, where 10 of her siblings homesteaded near Cleveland, west of Jamestown, where she set up her practice.

A former patient said, “If no other doctor would go, Dr. Wink would. She was never too busy to come. Sometimes, in stormy weather, we would meet her and the men would put her team in the barn. Often she stayed all night.” Doing “what more than any darned man would do,” Dr. Wink took food along on her calls.

Clara Corell, Dr. Wink’s one-time assistant, wrote: “One December Dr. Wink was called to a farm family living east of Alkali Lake near Spiritwood. The wife was expecting a baby and had been sick a few days before the doctor was sent for... The very poor family had only a small shack, which could hardly be called a house. The furniture was scarce and make-shift. Bread was standing in pans ready to be baked. The very sick woman was lying on a bed of hay in a wagon-box on the floor.” Dr. Wink saved mother and child, baked the bread and, for the next three days, cleaned the house, cared for mother, baby, and three other children before she headed back home.

Another time, Dr. Wink was called to a farm home where 9-year-old Lizzie Stuff was found to have appendicitis. Back then, patients with “inflamation of the bowels” died, but Helena loaded Lizzie and her sister into her buggy and took them back to Jamestown. There was no hospital, so Dr. Wink laid Lizzie on her dining room table. Then, she called three other doctors to assist her and performed “the first appendectomy in the whole upper midwest.” Dr. Wink nursed her young patient round the clock for three days and nights before the little girl was in the clear.

Dr. Wink was also widely known for something else: driving with reckless abandon. When she moved to Jamestown, she broke her own team of horses, a pair of 4-year-old sorrels. She wanted her horses fast and spirited for getting her quickly across the prairies to her patients.

“You had to look out for her,” said a former neighbor. “She didn’t look out for you. She came out of her drive with a whip in her hand, and her horses going, and if you were there you got run into.” Later, Dr. Wink got herself a Model T, which she drove “like she drove her team, never looking right or left. When you saw her coming down Fifth Avenue, you pulled to the side.”

Helena had no patience for railroad crossing arms, either. It’s reported there was a special fund at the Round House for replacing the guard arms she crashed through.

But, above all else, Dr. Wink was a pioneer in her field and was highly regarded by her peers. She was the state medical examiner for 25 years, and was called “Helen of Dakota” in a 1930 issue of the Medical Woman’s Journal. The article stated, “Dr. Wink is the oldest woman physician in North Dakota. She preceded all other women in the profession by many years. Every year since she graduated in medicine she has made history, and the quality of this history is such that not only the lay public but every member of her profession would pay her homage.”

Dr. Wink had been doctoring for 53 years when she unexpectedly died in 1936; she suffered a tragic death by fire from a home dry-cleaning accident.

Source: Forrest, Lois. “Fastest physician in the West.” Century of Stories: Jamestown and Stutsman County. Fort Seward Historical Society: 1983.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm