|Dr. Rosenthal's former State Street home
The year was 1886. Front Street was a dirt path and the landscape mostly barren across the Grand Traverse region following the logging heydays of the mid-1800s.
That same year, Augusta Louise Rosenthal moved to Traverse City – and did she ever turn some heads. But not for the reason you might suspect:
“… she commanded the attention of passers-by, not simply because she was an unaccompanied woman in this plain village, but because she grasped a small black bag in her hand, a sure sign that she practiced medicine. She was a doctor.”
(Excerpted from Who We Were, What We Did: Fresh Perspectives on Grand Traverse History by Richard Fidler.)
Tomorrow, the History Center of Traverse City will celebrate three individuals who broke barriers and helped to build community with its new “Legends” exhibit – one such legend is Dr. Augusta Rosenthal-Thompson, the first female physician to practice in Traverse City.
No one knows exactly what possessed the young, single doctor to move north and establish her practice after graduating from the University of Michigan Medical School, but based on historical accounts perhaps it was the thrill of the challenge – house calls on horseback, snowshoes, via iceboat and once, amongst the beer kegs in the back of a brewery wagon.
Historical records do note, however, that she wasn’t single in Traverse City for long. The 25-year-old soon met and fell in love with Isaac A. Thompson, also a young doctor, and the two were married in 1887.
As a small-town doctor, and “country doctor” in many instances, she treated everything from broken bones to serious illness but had a special interest in diseases of children and women.
Tragically, when her and Isaac’s first child, Isaac Alonzo, Jr. (aka Jackie) was struck with diphtheria around his seventh birthday and she was unable to save him, she was convinced her medical knowledge was lacking, and she soon left Traverse City for further study in Europe.
Back in Traverse City, her husband accused her of desertion, an offense that could lead to divorce; the expectation in these days was that wives would stay with their husbands – no matter the circumstances.
Upon Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson’s return home, she immediately learned one of her son’s former playmates was gravely ill with diphtheria. Thanks to her newly acquired knowledge, she was able to save his life.
She also was soon divorced, the court ruling in her husband’s favor.
All in all, she spent 25 years practicing in Traverse City, and then moved to Grand Rapids where she practiced another 15 years. She retired to Berrien Springs, and it was there she died in 1954, at the age of 94.
She is buried, next to her son, Jackie, in an unmarked grave in Traverse City’s Oakwood Cemetery.
The “Legends of the Grand Traverse Region: Community Out Of Diversity” exhibit opens tomorrow at a special presentation, lecture and reception from 4-6 p.m. at the History Center of Traverse City. The new semi-annual “Legends” project is made possible thanks to a $15,000 grant award from the Michigan Humanities Council.
Did you know?
If you’ve ever had to get a blood transfusion in Traverse City, a little credit should go to Dr. Rosenthal-Thompson. While studying in Europe, she learned how to do a blood transfusion and was the first doctor to perform the procedure here.