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A gal with gumption: Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix

March 8, 2010

Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor its theme of “celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future”, I dedicate today’s post to a local gal with gumption: Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix.

I first learned of Dr. Fix (what a name for a physician!) when I was perusing a local history book from the Images of America series put together by the folks at the North Platte Valley Museum (which I have yet to visit): Gering, Scottsbluff, and Terrytown.

Perhaps my early life influences drew me to her story. I attended an elementary school named after the first female M.D. in the U.S., Elizabeth Blackwell, so was imprinted by her struggle against patriarchy. In the early 1980s, Santa Claus gave me the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House boxed set of frontier-life stories, which I’ve read in its entirety at least a dozen times.

I find the daily life stories of pioneers fascinating, in part because I don’t know if I would have had the mettle to survive many of their ordeals. Adding the hardships of life on the frontier to the discrimination faced by female physicians just boggles my mind. I get frustrated in our modern age by the prejudices facing women in the professional world. I really respect the moxie Georgia must have had to not only practice medicine, but to do so in the “wild west”.

I went to the Lied Scottsbluff Public Library, eager to get a fix of Dr. Fix’s biography. To my disappointment, there is no extensive biography of the life of Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix. The library’s collection consists of only three items.

One is a young adult book, Extraordinary Women of the American West, that describes more than 50 women in “profiles [that] are more often puff pieces”, as a reviewer describes it.

Another is the oddest biography I’ve seen in a library collection. It’s a play. A musical play. The copy I checked out was a photocopy of a typed manuscript with hand-written corrections, bound in laminated, thick paper that was once purple but has faded to beige. A Portrait of Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix: Pioneer Physician of the North Platte Valley was copyrighted by Rae E. Whitney in 1982 and includes the songs “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad”, “Home on the Range”, and “Can-can”.

The library’s copy of “Miss Morissa” is signed by the author.

A third resource that did not come up in the library catalog search, but which I learned about via the web, was the novel Miss Morissa by Nebraska author Mari Sandoz. Miss Morissa is purportedly based on the lives of three pioneering “lady doctors” (Dr. Mary W. Quick, Dr. Phoebe A. Oliver Briggs, and Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix), but the book is perceived to be primarily based on Dr. Fix’s life. Some editions of the book even have a photograph of Dr. Fix on the cover. In my opinion, this association is unfortunate. The book reads at times like a romance novel (I shuddered when the character destined to become Miss Morissa’s husband was described as having an “aggressive mouth”), and after its publication, many who knew Dr. Fix protested that the book portrayed her inaccurately. I despise reading a fact-based piece of fiction and not knowing what’s true and what’s made up.

Here is some fact. Georgia Arbuckle enrolled in the founding class of the College of Medicine of Omaha in 1881, the lone female of nine students. She practiced in Omaha for three years, then moved to the western Nebraska frontier in 1886, where she was the only doctor within a 75-mile radius. In 1888, she married a man by the name of Fix and thus became Dr. Fix. The marriage didn’t last. Here is one of the more famous stories about Dr. Fix, as written by Mari Sandoz, in preparation for the novel:

. . . she was one of the first in the west to mend a skull, laid open by a well accident, with a hand-hammered silver plate from a silver dollar, the whole emergency operation carried out in a homestead shack without even a nurse to help. She even hammered the plate into the shape from the coin herself, on a piece of rail iron and a fencing hammer. The man lived to be eighty, the plate still well in place.

Georgia Arbuckle Fix died in 1918. What the North Platte Valley Museum book failed to mention is that Dr. Fix is buried in Gering’s West Lawn Cemetery, within sight of the bluffs. I traveled to the cemetery on a recent morning to find her grave.

I stopped near the main entrance and scanned over the cemetery map for the name “Fix”. I looked in the older part of the cemetery, where there are plots marked “unknown” and large children’s sections typical of the era. A caretaker stepped out of the office to ask if I needed help. I told him I was looking for the grave of the “lady doctor” Georgia Arbuckle Fix. He said a lot of people have been coming to look for her grave.

Cool.

He pointed out a large red granite stone and said that her grave was nearby. I walked over and snapped a picture.

Good on ya, Georgia. Happy International Women’s Day.

UPDATE: North Platte Valley Museum permanently closed in 2013 to join forces with the former Farm And Ranch Museum to become Legacy of the Plains Museum at 2930 Old Oregon Trail in Gering. See the Legacy of the Plains Museum website for the most recent updates.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa Betz permalink
    March 8, 2010 7:39 am

    Katie,

    I love your blog. We have so many similar interests and it’s cool to read your perspective as a newcomer. I am also a huge fan of Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix. One story that I have read, I believe at the NPVM, was that her husband became unhappy with Georgia’s doctoring as she became more and more in demand here. He wanted to move away and take her with him; however, the townspeople loved their doctor so much, they intervened and helped Georgia to get a divorce so that she could stay here and serve the community. Also, I have Mari Sandoz collected letters. She writes of her research on Dr. Fix. Sandoz is also a phenomenal woman and has deep roots here. It was very common to her era to have researched real people and write fiction, just as it is today. You might reserve judgment on her as author. She is quite fantastic. Rae Whitney is alive and well, another phenomenal woman. She is English but has lived here for many, many years. She may enjoy meeting you sometime. Perhaps we could visit her together and ask her about Dr. Fix. Would you like that?

    The North Platte Valley Museum has loads of information about Dr. Fix. You would probably enjoy going there some afternoon and getting lost in their archives. Dr. Fix is prominent in the “Ladies’ Club” documentation. There are many stories of her being found snoozing on the prairie in her one-horse buggy, a replica of which they have at the museum. It’s a fantastic place. Barb Netherland is the curator and she is very knowledgeable. I’m certain she’d be delighted to assist you in finding things about Dr. Fix and other cool pioneer women. There is also the journal of one of Dr. Fix’s very good friends, also a fascinating woman of the era. Her name is not coming to me right now but I will think on it and get back to you : )

    Thank you so much for posting your insights about our community here. It’s really a breath of fresh air.

    Lisa

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      March 8, 2010 10:01 am

      Lisa, Thanks for all the info! NPVM is definitely on my “to do” list. Having a chat with Ms. Whitney would be pretty cool. I actually put Miss Morissa down in disgust and went to bed at one point, sorry to say. Normally, you can’t pry a book out of my hands. I can try giving Sandoz another go, but I do tend to have a bias against fiction. There’s just so much really good nonfiction stuff out there (the genre has really taken off in the last 10-15 years) that when reading fiction I often feel like “Aaack! Why am I reading something made-up when I could be reading something “real”? Then again, “real” is often in the eye of the beholder.

  2. March 8, 2010 1:40 pm

    I’ve acted the part of Dr. Georgia Arbuckle Fix with the Rae Whitney play.
    Rae Whitney flew to Lincoln last year to make Dr. Fix a part of history–call her for all the details. Rae’s # 308.#######

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      March 8, 2010 5:15 pm

      Heehee! I would have loved to have seen your interpretation of Dr. Fix, Suella!

  3. Bruce Rolls permalink
    August 6, 2010 5:52 pm

    You might be interested to know that John Ewing has the Good Doctor’s medical bag in his museum. I don’t know if he has any other records of her presence in the area. She must have been a very interesting founder of the community.

  4. Bruce Rolls permalink
    October 16, 2010 4:39 pm

    No,

    The medical bag is in John Ewing’s museum. He has a private museum created by his family. The Ewings homesteaded in the wildcat hills area and John has many important early artifacts from this area.
    Homestead items, Native American items and western items.

  5. Irene Tyson permalink
    February 11, 2012 12:04 am

    Dr.Georgia A. Fix was my. Grandfather’s half-sister. Dr.Fix attended the birth of my mother and my mother always referred to her as “Auntie Doctor”.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      February 11, 2012 9:00 am

      Cool! Thanks for sharing, Irene! I now work at the North Platte Valley Museum, and I always thrill when I come across something in the archive relating to Dr. Fix.

    • Faye Lamb permalink
      August 6, 2012 4:38 pm

      I am doing research on Dr. Fix…would love to talk to you about your grandfather…..did do some Reeves research today at NVPM: email @ dflamb@earthlink.net. Thanks

    • Veronica Burggren permalink
      November 28, 2013 12:01 am

      I know this post is old, but I too am researching the lines of Dr. Fix. My great, great grandfather, Franklin Smith Lane, also known as Frank Reeves, used to drive the buggy for Georgia from what I’ve read and she delivered my great uncle and my great grandmother. For Irene, if you’re reading this still, what family line are you on per chance? I can be reached at bantancestry@comcast.net and would love to swap any information possible. Kind regards, Veronica Burggren

  6. Tricia Parker permalink
    February 13, 2012 5:56 am

    Awesome article, Katie. If you want more information regarding Dr. Fix, Joanne Smith of Gering has researched her for years with her 4th graders. If you can’t find her number, her son, Adrian, is a state representative and her husband, Neal is a State Farm agent in Scottsbluff.

    • Katie Bradshaw permalink*
      February 13, 2012 8:41 am

      Thanks, Tricia! It’s important for me to know who the “history allies” are in the community.

  7. Barb Bonomini permalink
    August 10, 2013 10:17 pm

    HI, I’m fascinated with all the information on here about Georgia Arbuckle Fix. I’m an Arbuckle descendant and am researching any Arbuckle in the US before 1900. By any chance, can anyone fill me in on her parents and other family members so that I can attach her to a family group, please?

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