Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Dr. Kate: A true pioneer

Charismatic caregiver left an enduring legacy
by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In Minocqua-Woodruff-Arbor Vitae Area Visitor Guide

Why is a country doctor who passed away nearly half a century ago the hero of Woodruff? You’ll understand when you see the video at the Dr. Kate Museum.

Kate Pelham Newcomb, M.D. (1885-1956), affectionately known as Dr. Kate., was the daughter of Thomas Pelham, president of Gilette Razor Company. Against his wishes, she attended the University of Buffalo Medical School, earning her degree in 1917. She practiced medicine in Detroit until she and her husband, William Newcomb, moved to the clean air of Wisconsin’s Northwoods for his health in 1922.

She believed her brief medical career was over. She was wrong. In 1931, Minocqua’s beloved, aging, Dr. Thomas Torpy (Torpy Park is named after him), the area’s only practicing doctor, convinced her to head out on snowshoes to answer an emergency call. From then on, Dr. Kate was in active practice, driving 100 miles a day to logging camps, remote farms and far-flung towns. She earned the title “Angel on Snowshoes” for her heroic treks to snowbound homesteads. In 25 years of practice, she delivered about 4,000 babies.

For years, Dr. Kate worked to build a hospital in the region. But by 1952, the partially completed Lakeland Memorial Hospital was a stalled dream. There simply wasn’t enough money. Then a group of Woodruff-Arbor Vitae High School students rallied with a penny drive that garnered international attention in newspapers and magazines and raised the needed money for the building. A 15-foot penny, on public display near the Dr. Kate Museum, memorializes the Million Penny Parade.

The story might have ended here, but for an episode of the wildly popular TV show named “This Is Your Life.” Thinking she was in Los Angeles for a medical convention in 1954, Dr. Kate found herself in the live audience of a show she knew nothing about—there weren’t many TV sets in the Lakeland. When host Ralph Edwards proclaimed, “Dr. Kate Newcomb, this is your life!” the 68-year-old physician was stunned.

The audience may have been familiar with the show’s format, but Dr. Kate was not. Girlhood friends materialized. Grateful homesteaders told how Dr. Kate had rescued their loved ones in trying circumstances. An elderly man, Sam Williams, appeared; he’d saved the doctor’s life once when she was dazed and lost in the snow. These moving tales, told in the broad, honest accents of the Wisconsin Northwoods, struck the heart of the nation.

But most striking of all was Dr. Kate herself, an obscure figure from a remote wilderness, suddenly cast into the spotlight. As it turned out, she was enthralling. Her pure surprise was deeply touching. Her courage was impressive. And her quick, lingering smile—it was like the sun bursting apart a snowstorm. Her grandmotherly warmth was like an early spring compelling mayapples and wood violets to life. Viewers fell in love with her.

No one, not even the show’s producers, could have known what the episode would trigger: Money for the hospital would flood into the town from all over the world, and Dr. Kate would become famous, an international celebrity whose biography made the New York Times bestseller list. Twenty years later, Lakeland Memorial Hospital would receive $20 million from an art dealer, S. Howard Young, that would transform the tiny facility into the multi-faceted, ever-growing Howard Young Health Center.

In 1988, the Dr. Kate Museum was founded. There, the star exhibit is a video of the captivating 48-year-old TV show, which delights visitors of all ages, and continues to bring alive Dr. Kate’s powerfully engaging personality to new generations.

Dr. Kate Museum
923 2nd Avenue
Woodruff, Wis.
(715) 356-6896 or (715) 356-9421
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Second Monday in June through Labor Day
Other times available by appointment

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