Thursday, March 14, 2013

"You held me by the hand and I felt so much better."

by Lana Wirt Myers 

Welcome to guest blogger Lana Myers.  Lana is the author of two books and currently is the office manager at HCHM.

During Women's History Month, Dr. Lucena Chase Axtell deserves to be remembered as a dynamic woman ahead of her time in what she accomplished as a wife, mother and physician. 
Dr. Lucena Chase Axtell

In 1874, nine-year-old Lucena May "Cena" Chase moved from Michigan to Kansas in a railroad freight car. After four years of attempting to farm land near Burrton during conditions of drought and a grasshopper invasion, her family moved to a home in Newton and took in boarders. One of the boarders was 22-year-old John Axtell, who was Cena's teacher during her first term at the Newton school.

When not teaching, Axtell studied medicine. A few years later, he also found time to court his former pupil Cena Chase and the two were married in 1882. Axtell eventually earned a medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York and, together, husband and wife opened Newton's first hospital in the spring of 1887.

Axtell Hospital was just the fifth general (non-military) hospital in Kansas
and the first to be privately owned by a physician. It also is believed
to have offered the first school of nursing in the state.

The hospital building soon expanded to increase patient capacity and to add living quarters for the Axtell family, which now included two daughters, Lilian and Marguerite. After the family moved into its new home, Cena took over management of the hospital.

Three years later, the Axtells embarked upon a plan for Cena to assume an even larger role in the hospital by pursuing her own medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Kansas City. In addition to the demands of coursework during her first year of medical school, she also juggled the responsibilities of caring for her daughters who stayed in Kansas City with her.

In May 1897, Dr. Lucena Axtell graduated from medical school and returned to Newton where she resumed management of the hospital and also set up a private practice. The Axtells' third daughter, Mildred, was born in 1898 and, in 1902, just two years after their oldest daughter left for college, a fourth daughter, Marian, arrived.

Dr. Lucena Axtell and Dr. John Axtell with their daughters (left to right)
Marian Hanna, Lilian Grove, Marguerite Glover and Mildred Branine
Photo courtesy of Margie Knupp

After her death in 1951, Dr. Lucena Axtell was described in The Newton Kansan as "an angel of mercy, help and encouragement to hundreds of families, whose second and third generations hold her memory in reverence today." Her daughter Marian Axtell Hanna remembered:
Years after she stopped practicing . . . people would come up to her and say, "Oh, Dr. Lucena, surely you remember me. I was so sick and doctor thought that I would surely not live. But you came and stood beside me and held me by the hand and it made me feel so much better." That was the phrase that always was reiterated, "You held me by the hand and I felt so much better."
In 2005, Lucena Axtell was one of only four Kansans among 130 physicians nominated nationally to be recognized as a Local Legend, a program sponsored by the American Medical Women's Association to honor physicians who have demonstrated commitment and innovation in their fields of medicine. U.S. Representative Todd Tiahrt described her as:  "A woman far ahead of her time, she represents the ideal of what women physicians can do and accomplish."

For further reading about Lucena Axtell . . .
  • Myers, Lana W. Newton Medical Center: Merging the Past with the Future. Newton, Kans.: Mennonite Press, Inc., 2006 (available in HCHM's Carnegie Gift Shop and area bookstores).
  • Hanna, Marian Axtell. Interview by Ann Holt. Audiocassette and transcript, 30 June 1977. Newton Public Library.
  • Harvey County Historical Museum's Photo Archives


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  1. Such a positive message! There are now many health care professional women that exemplify this spirit of caring, to the credit of Dr Lucerna Axtell's example.