History Article July 2008

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article July 2008.

“A Calm and steady presence:”
Dr. Olive Jack

By Lauren Coodley

“Humble by nature, a consensus builder by choice and dedicated to making a difference, Dr. Jack has established a standard of community service reserved for legends that few will ever match…Dr. Jack’s extraordinary focus and knowledge has helped shape the plans and policies that have guided the development and significant expansion of the aging services network in both Napa and Solano Counties. Her work has directly benefited untold thousands seniors over the past twenty years. In a very real sense, her contribution to the community, particularly on behalf of the weak and frail among us, is simply beyond calculation. She has been a calm and steady presence whose work and compassion over the years has touched everyone in the aging services network.”

Those were the words of Linda Baker, chair of the Board of Directors of the Area Agency on Aging, at an event at the Olive Tree Restaurant in 200l to honor Dr. Olive Jack. I finally met this renowned Napa personage at Piners Convalescent Hospital, where she is currently living.

Born in l9l5 in Nebraska, Olive M. Jack attended the University of Nebraska during the Great Depression of the Thirties. She wasn’t financially able to go to medical school so, instead, she trained as a medical technician. When World War II began, she was recruited to be a medical tech for the U.S. Army and travelled to different military camps. After leaving the Army, she found a job at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, where her boss encouraged her to go to medical school: “If you don’t get into the top third of the students, I’ll never speak to you again.”

Beginning in the 19th century, the required educational preparation for the practice of medicine increased. This tended to prevent many young American women from entering the medical profession, especially if they were married and had a family. Although home nursing was considered a proper female occupation, nursing in hospitals was performed almost exclusively by men. The American Medical Association, founded in 1846, barred women from membership. No state fully admitted women until l870. By the 1910s, however, women were attending many leading medical schools and in 1915 the American Medical Association began to admit women members.

Thirty-two years later, in l947 when Olive Jack finally entered medical school, women were restricted to ten percent of the students. Olive Jack completed her internship and residency in pediatrics at San Francisco Children’s Hospital in l952. During Dr. Jack’s San Francisco residency, her mother moved to Napa; soon after, Dr. Jack followed. She fondly remembers Napa, then a town of 13,000 people: “It was easy to get around…people were friendly and easy to get to know.” When Dr. Jack was first looking for an office, she would always ask if there were objections to her as a woman doctor. She remembers hearing none.

She lived downtown, close to her pediatric office, and later moved across the street from the newly built Queen of the Valley Hospital. The first physician she shared a practice was Dr. Herbert Waechtler, with whom she maintained a long partnership and warm friendship. Paula Amen Schmitt remembers him saying: “The thing that is so hard about having such a busy practice is that I don’t have enough time to go to the rest homes to visit my seniors as often as I want to.”

In l969, Dr. Jack retired from private practice and began running the county’s outpatient clinic and child health conference. In 1970 she became the physician for the Napa schools. (The first woman physician in the Napa school system was Dr. Ethel Priest who, in l947, established a school health program and became a physician for the junior college and high school football teams). Dr. Jack served as the Director of Health Services for Napa County from 1974 to 1979, during which time she was also the Director of Mental Health and the county’s Drug Program.

Remarkably, Dr. Jack recognized that the newly developing field of geriatric medicine was as significant as pediatrics. In the Eighties, along with Jack Cunningham, Dr. Jack helped found the Solano/Napa Agency on Aging. In 1982 she was on the original board of directors of Napa Senior Day Services “Primetime.” Social worker, Michael Vurek, remembers working with her in the program:

“My deepest sense of her was her willingness to do the hard, unrecognized tasks of creating and sustaining a community-based organization. We worked shoulder to shoulder, but I was always paid, and she was a volunteer. She was, for me, a role model of how to roll up your sleeves and do a piece of the work when something needs to be done. There were no fancy titles or great prestige… I deeply respect and admire her.”

In l990, Soroptomist International of Napa Sunrise presented Dr. Jack with the Women Helping Women award for her service to the Napa community. She accepted the honor at a breakfast event during Women’s History Month. Dr. Jack continued to serve on multiple boards, as that “steady presence on behalf of the weak and frail.” On July l2, 200l, Congressmen Mike Thompson entered these remarks into the Congressional Record:

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize Dr. Olive Jack’s tremendous commitment to the health and wellbeing of the citizens of the Napa community. We can all look to Dr. Jack as a true role model for serving the public selflessly and tirelessly.”

Having taught classes in human development at the community college for decades, I am impressed by the range of Dr. Jack’s contributions to children and elders in this region, and wish to thank her for her recent gracious interview, conducted in her room at Piner’s. Thanks also to Lauren Ellsworth for her research and editing assistance on this essay. Further information on the history of pioneering women physicians like Olive Jack can be found at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/171.html:

Beginning in 1970, when just under 8% of US physicians were women, the percentage of female physicians began to steadily increase- to nearly 12% in 1980 and 17% in 1990.In the 21st century, the number of women physicians continued to rise; 25.2% of US physicians were female by 2002.

Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine by Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Oxford University Press, l985.
Congressional Record, July 12, 200l
From The Last Adventure by Joyce Maxtone Graham, 1901-1953

You think yourselves the adventurous ones, you young ones,
And us becalmed, torpid, our days uneventful,
Our blood stagnant, our minds’ antennae blunted:
But I, who was young and now am old, can tell you
There is no adventure like the adventure of age.

Lauren Coodley has recently released, with Paula Amen Schmitt, a revised second edition of Napa: the Transformation of an American Town (Arcadia Publishing).



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