Tag Archives: doctors

Sara T. Chase-Willson: An Early Woman Physician with Modern Ideas

by Julie Schopieray, author and avid researcher

Medicine was in her blood. The daughter of a Civil War surgeon, Sara Thomasina Chase was the first-born child of Dr. Milton Chase who settled in Otsego, Allegan County, Michigan, after the war.  Giving his children a good education after finishing her secondary schooling in Otsego, Sara entered the Ypsilanti Normal School. She graduated in 1891, then taking a position at the Traverse City High School teaching English and science. Teaching until 1896, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and entered medical school at the University of Michigan. After her graduation in 1900 at the age of 34, she went back to Otsego and practiced with her father. In 1906, she returned to Traverse City, taking over the office of her cousin, Dr. Oscar E. Chase, while he went back to the University of Michigan for more training. She set up office in the State Bank building where she advertised her practice. 

This 1903 article from the Traverse City Evening Record gives us a glimpse of her ambition and dedication to the practice of medicine as a woman in a man’s world.

Dr. Chase entirely disapproves the old idea, which once was quite prevalent, that a professional woman could not be a womanly woman. She is a physician of no mean ability, and has considerable skill with the needle. She is thoroughly accomplished in household science. She is very fond of outdoor exercise, being an especially fine horsewoman. Still they are outside interests to her, after all, as her heart is in her profession, and it is this that receives first and best thought. [TCER 15 May 1903]

Known to be as good a physician as her male counterparts, she was  be able to handle just about any situation. In 1908 she traveled five miles past the village of Cedar in a blizzard to tend to a patient. The Traverse City Record Eagle reported, “Dr. Sarah T. Chase has a hard trip yesterday afternoon, driving five miles beyond Cedar in the blizzard. She went to Cedar on the train and was met there by a driver. Ten miles in such a storm required nerve even in a man.” (7 Feb. 1908)

Always wanting to improve her skills, in the summer of 1909 she took a six-week break from her practice and attended a special summer school course at U. of M.

Active with the Congregational Church, she served as Sunday School teacher. She often gave lectures on children’s and women’s health at events of the Woman’s Club and Central Mother’s Club. Her lectures were about topics important to the women of Traverse City and covered subjects such as the proper feeding of children and babies and “What to do Until the Doctor Comes,” a lecture about first aid.  As chairman for the public health committee for Grand Traverse County, she often gave talks about various health topics relevant to all citizens:  “The Air We Breathe and the Value of Ventilation,” “Children’s Diseases,” “Suppression of Tuberculosis” as well as sensitive women’s health topics, such as  “Sex Hygiene,” and “The Responsibility of Girlhood to Womanhood.”  The notice for the last talk stated: “No men will be admitted to this lecture.”

Not content just to maintain her practice—or to be pigeon-holed into women’s care only—she became involved in local health-related issues that mattered to the entire community. In 1911 she was instrumental in petitioning the state to pass a bill “requiring licenses for the sale of patent and proprietary medicines by itinerant vendors.” In simple terms, the bill would require licenses for traveling elixir salesmen. She served as meat and milk inspector for the city and reported to the city on sanitary inspections of farms and slaughter houses. As part of her county responsibilities, she acted as secretary for the county Tuberculosis Society.  Dr. Chase was one of the first woman members of the Grand Traverse County Medical Society. In 1907 she accepted the position of secretary of the Society when her associate, Dr. Myrtelle M. Canavan, left for Boston after her husband’s death. She was also a member of the Michigan State Medical Society and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.).

Tuberculosis hit Traverse City hard in 1915.  Dr. Chase worked tirelessly as head of the board of the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, a group she helped found.  That organization aimed to improve health conditions by working with others in the medical field and offering free clinics in the city to educate the public about the dreaded disease. She used experimental treatments, publishing her positive results in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine.

In 1920 she accepted a job at the Kalamazoo State Hospital as assistant physician, where she worked until 1922, moving to Port Huron and taking the position of “Great Medical Examiner of the Ladies of the Maccabees”, a post she held for the next seven years.  She assisted with Maccabees clinics for children and was on the board of the Anti-TB Association.

While in Port Huron, she was reacquainted with Harlow Willson, whom she likely knew as a young girl in Otsego. He had been living in Boyne City with his wife Maybell and their children, working as a postman. After the two were divorced in 1924, Dr. Chase and Harlow were married in May, 1926.

A progressive woman, she did not give up her maiden name, instead preferring to use a hyphenated name: Dr. Sara T. Chase-Willson. They were both sixty years old at the time of their marriage– her first and his second.  After their marriage, Harlow and his mother ran Willson’s Garden shop on River Road, while Sara worked for the Ladies of the Maccabees.

During her years in Port Huron, Dr. Chase was actively involved in the Ladies Library Association, fought for child labor laws, and served as an active member of the Ottawawa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R).  She was a committed member of the Theosophical Society, and, as an expert in that movement, gave speeches on the history of Theosophy. In 1929 she resigned from her position with the Maccabees, but remained active in medical causes.

Around 1941 she and her husband moved to Boyne City where they opened another garden shop and florist business. In 1946 Dr. Chase fell in their home and broke her hip, but fully recovered and continued her volunteer work.  After her husband’s death in 1950, she sold her  Boyne City home and retired to the Maccabee Home in Alma where she died three years later at the age of 87.


It was unusual for a town the size of Traverse City in the early 1900s to have two female physicians. Sara Chase was not the town’s first woman doctor, but she and Dr. Augusta Rosenthal-Thompson each had tirelessly worked serving the people of Traverse City. Their careers only overlapped by a few years toward the end of Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson’s time in the city, but these two pioneers of medicine– amazing women in their own ways–each had an impact in the community, paving the way by their influence and demonstrating that women could successfully work in a career dominated by men.

You can read more about Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson in the book Who We Were, What We Did,  by Richard Fidler.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal. She is currently working on a biography and architectural history of Jens C. Petersen, once a Traverse City-based architect, who made his mark on many cities in Northern Michigan and California.

Before Munson: Traverse City’s First General Hospital

by Julie Schopieray, local author and history enthusiast

In a small, isolated town as Traverse City was in the late 1800s, a sudden illness or serious injury was treated in one of the several doctors offices in the city. These offices were generally small, dark and ill-equipped compared to what we experience today, but this system of treating the ill was normal for small towns across the country. All medical care was primitive compared to what we are now used to. Many maladies were treated with elixirs and herbal remedies. Poor sanitary conditions resulting in infections was the most common reason for deaths. The lack of regulations monitoring medical education and licensing was still years away. Most local physicians were as qualified as they could be, but  this was the typical medical care available in Traverse City and other small towns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The Traverse City asylum had  a staff of physicians and nurses for the patients, but was not open to  treat the public. As the city grew, the need for a general hospital was widely discussed and debated, but it wasn’t until 1902 when an opportunity to open one presented itself.

sturm4At the intersection of what is now M-72 and M-22 in Greilickville, was a summer resort called the Spring Beach Hotel. It was owned by a group of four Indianapolis physicians and  had been a summer-only health resort which opened around 1896.  After two of the original owners passed away, the remaining owners decided to sell it. The property included a hotel building and  barn on thirty acres of land with a view of the bay.  Dr. Victor Hugo Sturm and his partner Harvey P. Hurley of Chicago, purchased the resort with the plan to continue it as a summer health resort. They advertised it  in homeopathic medical journals as the Grand Traverse Health Resort.

At first, their aim was to continue it as a retreat-type summer health sanitarium as it had been, but when they realized that the community needed a real hospital, they decided to permanently open it to all of the physicians in the area. The hotel building first needed some updating to make it into a hospital, so Dr. Sturm and his investors added on to the main building, spending about six thousand dollars in improvements for the new business.

Dr. Victor H. Sturm. Image courtesy of the author.
Dr. Victor H. Sturm. Image courtesy of the author.

Dr. Sturm arrived to make Traverse City his permanent home the first of January 1903, bringing his new bride, Sylvia. They took an apartment in the sanitarium building as their  residence. Sylvia would take an active role in running the hospital as manager, serving on the board as secretary and treasurer and in later years, working to coordinate the nursing staff. A well-educated woman, she had attended Oberlin College and University of Michigan. With her husband out of town regularly on business, he left the hospital under her capable management. His involvement was minimal except for the initial investment.

Dr. Hurley  provided funds for the city to buy an ambulance, which would be available to transport patients from their homes or doctors’ offices to the hospital.  An agreement was made that the ambulance would not be used for anything outside the city, and they arranged for the chief of police to have charge of the vehicle. Mr. Murray of the Gettleman Brewing Co. offered his team of horses which he kept at  his business and stated that his team will be at the disposal of the city for use on the ambulance at all times, night or day. The new hospital, at first, did not have an in-house physician, but  there was always a nurse on staff, and it was open at all times for any doctor in the city to use. 

sturm5The support staff included a cook, laundresses and house keepers. The large grounds had gardens where staff raised vegetables used in the meals for patients. By the end of 1907, seven full time nurses were employed including night staff, and two nurses remained available for private calls throughout the city when needed. A nursing program was established and training began in 1907.  The call went out  to recruit  young ladies of the city to enter the program.

sturm6The hospital served the city well for four years, but by 1907 it became clear that the facility was too small.  A major renovation and expansion was planned with a 20-room annex addition. Local architect Jens C. Petersen was hired to design the new, up to date facility.  The Evening Record described the hospital in glowing terms: The annex will be entirely modern and sanitary in every particular…There will be separate wards for the male and female patients… There will be a large surgery with a recovery room attached…for performing difficult and delicate operations. Arrangements have already been completed for the establishment of a training school for nurses in connection with the hospital and the staff will be composed of leading physicians of northern Michigan. An elevator was installed in the three story addition and a separate cottage was used to house contagious patients. The outdated kerosene lamps throughout the building were replaced with much brighter acetylene gas lamps, especially improving the visibility for surgeons in the operating room.

Dr. Vaughn, head of the Chicago Union Hospital, toured the new, improved facility while on vacation in the summer of 1907 and gave his approval. His praise was gladly received. The city had  desperately needed the services of a general hospital and all was going well. The hospital  investors filed articles of incorporation in the summer of 1909 and it became the Grand Traverse Hospital, Inc. 

As the only hospital in town, the citizens of Traverse City and surrounding areas now had a modern hospital with full services. When a local doctor could not treat a patient in their home or in their office, they were sent to the hospital. Cases treated included everything from illnesses including appendicitis, hernias, pulmonary tuberculosis, cancer and typhoid fever. Others were treated for injuries from occupational hazards such as railroad workers being hit by or falling from  trains, a woman who lost both feet after they were run over by an engine near her job at the starch factory, a farmer who fell from a hay mower, and a firefighter who was overcome by smoke. There were those admitted as a result of accidents, such as carriage collisions, a man who was aboard the steamer Leelanau was scalded when the boiler exploded, and injuries from misfiring rifles. Other injuries were self inflicted. One woman died after a self-inflicted suicidal gunshot wound became infected. Another ingested carbolic acid in a suicide attempt, but survived.

Hospital statistics for 1909 were printed in the paper: 144 cases admitted, 85  total operations- 45 of those were major, 10 deaths, and a daily average of 5 patients.

By the end of the year however, everything came crashing down. On December 28, 1909, while on a business trip for his pharmaceutical supply company, Dr. Sturm was found dead in his sleeping berth on a train, near Mason City, Iowa after suffering an apparent heart attack.  His body was taken to Anderson, Indiana where a daughter from his first marriage lived.

Only a few weeks after the announcement of Dr. Sturm’s death, the remaining stock holders decided to close the hospital. On March 31, 1910, the doors were closed for good, leaving the city once again without a hospital. The abrupt end was not just because of the death of Dr. Strum, but also had to do with a large law suit brought against them by the husband of a patient who died after being treated at the hospital. James Murchie, an alderman of the city charged the hospital with serious mistakes made while his wife was in their care in 1909.

Mrs. Murchie had  been suffering from kidney stones and  was treated with a common method– using turpentine as an enema. She was sent home after a time, but after a few weeks, her husband took her to an Ann Arbor hospital when it was discovered that she had several kidney stones which needed immediate surgery.  After the surgery, an infection set in and she died.

Her husband charged that an alleged mistake at the Traverse City hospital was directly responsible for her death, claiming that the nurse mistakenly administered carbolic acid rather than turpentine when his wife was given the enema treatment normally used for her type of symptoms. The bereaved husband sued the hospital for $10,000, claiming hospital workers contributed to her suffering. 

The Evening Record reported the findings of the jury: “…no verdict could be rendered against the defendant under the theory of plaintiff’s claim for damages under the charge as given relative to the administration of carbolic acid as an enema, as no witness expert or otherwise, testified to this as a fact. Furthermore, the newspaper went on, …there is no evidence which tended to show that the nurse in question was at all… incompetent, or that the appliances and conveniences furnished at the hospital were in any way faulty, unclean or improper. Therefore, the jury concluded, …under the undisputed evidence in this case, if by any possibility any person is liable, it would be the nurse in charge and not the owners or interested parties in the hospital.”[Traverse City Evening Record, 3-16-1910]  Mr. Murchie was ultimately granted $2,385 in damages.

After being closed for two years, the hospital was re-opened in 1913 under the management of Mr. and Mrs. A.L. Smith of Leland.  Mrs. Smith was a trained nurse and  was in charge of the nursing department. Members of the Grand Traverse Medical Society in both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties used the facility.  Its tenure was short-lived, however, when the building caught fire in March 1915 and burned to the ground. There were only four patients in the building at the time and everyone was able to get out.

Once again, lacking a general hospital for its citizens, the community felt a desperate need for a new facility. James Decker Munson of the N. Mich. Asylum responded by opening a general hospital for the community, at first in an old residence on the asylum grounds.  In 1925 a large, modern hospital became a reality just north of the asylum. From that small beginning (which still exists under the complex), the Munson hospital facility has grown into what it is today.

A Sidelight about Dr. Sturm

Dr. Victor Hugo Sturm’s real story was not known when he came to Traverse City. He began to use the fictitious title of “doctor” when he became the vice president and lead sales agent for Luytie’s Homeopathic Pharmacy in St. Louis.   There is no evidence that he had any medical training at all, or that he actually treated patients, other than selling them the herbal elixirs he was hired to promote.

A German-born son of an eccentric man who claimed to have been the personal physician of Napoleon, he earned his living a traveling agent for a liquor producer in the early part of his career.  First married about 1856, he and his wife Mary had three daughters, only one of them surviving to adulthood.  During the Civil War he ran a sutler’s store and was the postmaster in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee.

In 1874 his name made newspapers across the south when he hired a lawyer to file divorce papers in a different state from his actual residence against his wife Mary without her knowledge.  In the mean time, he ran off with a woman whose husband had just suddenly died (possibly by suicide), married her, and filed to adopt her children.

When Sturm’s real wife found out, she refused to divorce him, and, in an act of revenge, proceeded to expose him by submitting letters in the newspaper claiming he threatened her life in order to influence her to grant him a divorce. The whole affair resulted in V.H. Sturm being arrested in June 1874 for bigamy, since divorce papers drawn up in Indiana were invalid in Tennessee. 

The newspapers had a field day with the whole thing. One clever reporter in the Cincinnati Inquirer wrote, Mrs. Castien[sic] of Macon, Georgia… has just married Major Sturm. There is a Mrs. Sturm at Knoxville, Tennessee, who says that if he has procured a divorce it has been without her knowledge or consent. There is a Sturm brewing evidently. 

Ultimately, a divorce was granted and Sturm took his new wife Eppie Bowdre-Castlen and her three children to California, where he worked as a traveling agent for C. Conrad Co.,  a liquor distributor. They settled in San Francisco, but by 1885 this marriage, too, ended. 

Eventually, he headed back east and and in the mid-1890s landed in St. Louis, becoming  the vice-president for Luytie’s Homeopathic Pharmacy Co.  It was at this time he began to refer to himself as “Dr.” Sturm. His long  experience as a smooth-talking salesman allowed him a lasting career with the Luytie’s company as one of their top agents. He traveled the country peddling these herbal remedies, and by 1900 had established offices in Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. At this time he became acquainted with Dr. Hurley and invested in the Grand Traverse Health Resort.

Sturm could never accept a sedentary domestic life. His entire adult life was spent traveling regionally for a few years, whereupon his wanderlust once again would take him far afield. In his younger years he had a reputation as a womanizer within the circles of other traveling men who encountered him, one calling him “a real Romeo, and perfectly reckless of female hearts.” It had been rumored that he had as many as three wives at one time, all in different cities.

He could never seem to stay in one place or with one woman for very long.  Even in the later years of his life, the open road called, as he left his wife behind to run the hospital, taking to the road one more time to sell his herbal drugs. In fact, he was doing what he loved best on the day he died– setting out on an excursion as a traveling salesman.

Julie Schopieray is a regular contributor to Grand Traverse Journal.

The Traverse City Friendship Center: a “From the Archives” Special

Recently acquired by the Local History Collection at the Traverse Area District Library was a very small collection of materials created by Ilse Adler, who was the Director of The Traverse City Friendship Center. The Center’s goal was to provide a social hub for released Traverse City State Hospital patients, and “other socio-emotionally handicapped persons.”

According to the Traverse City city directories, the Center was housed at 106 1/2 E. Front Street, from 1975-1978. The Center’s story, as you will read, tells us the opening of this ambitious undertaking was September 17, 1973. As far as could be determined, the Center likely operated from 1973 to 1978, but none of the materials in the collection indicate why the Center folded. Perhaps its services were duplicated elsewhere in the community and public health sector? If there is anyone in our readership with insight into the final days of the Center, we would love to hear from you.

The Center’s story is told briefly in a special issue of “The Observer,” the periodical of the Traverse City State Hospital in the 1970s. Enjoy this brief history of a well-meaning group of community members, who acted on the belief that Traverse City would be stronger for including all its residents.

“The Traverse City Friendship Center Story

This is the story of a dream, built on a community need, which became a reality with the opening of the doors to the Traverse City Friendship Center on September 17, 1973.

Image from the cover of the special issue of "The Observer," 1973.
Image from the cover of the special issue of “The Observer,” 1973.

Community concern for a drop-in center for social activities for released state hospital patients now living in the community, or for other socio-emotionally handicapped persons, had been discussed openly for some years but awaited someone to provide the knowledge and means of tapping resources and rallying community support. Mrs. Ilse Adler, Director of the Traverse City Friendship Center, with the support of Traverse City State Hospital administration was able to sell the idea to the community leaders and make necessary community contacts and work with state agencies to create and finance a drop-in center.

Because of the enthusiasm of everyone asked to participate in this endeavor, not one person said “no” to request for their help resulting in the formation of a steering Committee. This committee is composed of a group of concerned citizens and representatives of various social organizations, including the Traverse City State Hospital. This committee started to meet monthly to promote the center. These persons formed a sponsoring organization which was incorporated as the Traverse City Friendship Center under the laws of Michigan as a non-profit organization on July 17, 1973. The diverse professional backgrounds of steering committee members has made some sources of monies, professional services and counsel readily accessible to the center.

A local retired businessman donated the use of the second floor of a building located on Front Street, for the center. This has been a dance studio with a large ballroom, two smaller rooms with office space in the front, and was made available, rent free, with heat and water included.

Many community members, individuals and groups, contributed: a ping pong table, shuffleboard table, books, paint, office supplies, carpeting and the labor to lay it, etc. The moving of equipment and furniture was donated by volunteers and a local moving firm.

Furniture was moved in by volunteers, husbands and children of steering committee members and friends. A cleaning bee by members of the committee and their families readied the place and we opened on September 17, 1973. Since then many items and services have been donated by the attending members ranging from a small bookcase, games and music to “goodies” to be shared, as well as skills shared and rides by some who drive.

From "The Observer," 1973. Director Adler is sitting at the head of the table on the right.
From “The Observer,” 1973. Director Adler is sitting at the head of the table on the right.

Currently the center is open Sunday through Wednesday from 1-4 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7-9 p.m. Activities range from informal chatting over coffee, discussing problems with staff, participation in games and group activities, dancing, music, arts and crafts and educational programs geared toward their individual needs and interest. Members have the opportunity to explore new interests, develop their creativity through the use of arts and crafts taught by trained staff or volunteers. If members have specific skills they are encouraged to share them with others. The use of leisure time is stressed and members are shown means of applying new skills that will enable them to participate in meaningful experiences in their daily lives. Some activities pursued were planning Christmas, Valentine Day parties and a picnic, learning to mend clothes, making a wall mural, ceramics, stone polishing, woodworking and decoupage plaques. Educational programs consisting of films on mental health attitudes and a training program in office management, attended by 5 members, were offered during the year. Future programs, geared to interests of members, may include a daily living course, hair care, basic sewing and budgeting money, utilizing professional people in community as instructors.

From "The Observer," 1973. Interior of the Traverse City Friendship Center.
From “The Observer,” 1973. Interior of the Traverse City Friendship Center.

One of the community responses in support of the center is the time contributed by the volunteers. Originally our volunteers were from Traverse City State Hospital volunteer program, but gradually through media of TC and newspapers, and word of mouth, they came directly from the community. Training sessions led by members of hospital staff are provided every new volunteer. Follow-up sessions are held every first and third Monday morning, a time for sharing learning experiences with state hospital staff. Volunteers are encouraged to participate in activities and share their skills, and most important to give of themselves. During the time they are working at the center they may listen to clients discuss problems, participate in games or group activities, teach a specific skill or help with housekeeping chores.

Periodic meeting with the total membership, clients, volunteers and staff, promote participation in planning and decision making about the functioning and needs of the center.

In the year the Center has been open 202 individuals have participated in the program, with an average of 7-25 in attendance at a session. A continuous turnover in membership is noticeable, even though a small number, indicative that the needs of some have been met buy the center and they are able to cope with-out our support.

To date ten volunteers have logged a total of well over 1500 hours of service. More volunteers are joining the program and expressing the satisfaction gained by sharing time and self with others.”