Dr. Susan Anderson with two visitors at her cabin in Fraser. The man on the left may be her father, William.
Portions of this article have appeared in the Colorado Gambler Magazine and Cripple Creek District: Last of Colorado’s Gold Booms by Jan MacKell
c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins
Professional careers did not come easy to women of the 19th century. If she did not become a housewife, a woman’s choice of vocation ranged from cleaning woman to cook, from laundress to waitress. The few women who were provided a college education could aspire to the position of a clerk or nurse. For most, however, professional positions were out of reach. Dr. H. Susan Anderson, M.D., was a true exception to this rule.
Susan Anderson was born in 1870 in Indiana. When her parents divorced in 1875, Susan’s father William took custody of Susan and her younger brother John. By the early 1880’s, the family had moved to a farm near Wichita Kansas. Living on a farm proved beneficial for Susan’s later career as a physician. She learned to “doctor” the animals around the homestead. Susan’s early knowledge of animal medicine, combined with her father’s encouragement to pursue a career in the medical field, seemed to set her future in stone. But little did Susan realize her determination to become a physician would be challenged in several ways.
In 1890, William Anderson remarried a woman named Minnie who appears to have been jealous of her new stepchildren. Far from being prepared for a ready-made family, Minnie already had two children, and conceived at least two more by William. In her eyes, only her natural children counted as family. Minnie ignored and mistreated Susan and her brother John at every turn, letting them know they were not wanted. This abuse continued through the sibling’s graduation from Wichita High School in 1890.
Two years later the family moved to Barry, later known as Anaconda, in the Cripple Creek District of Colorado. The family first resided in a modest home south of the schoolhouse and William pursued mining interests. It was decided that Susan and John should attend college, serving two purposes: further education would broaden the teens’ minds while getting them out of Minnie’s way.
When Susan left to study medicine at the University of Michigan in 1893, Cripple Creek had eight physicians. By the following year, the figure had doubled. Susan planned to open shop in Cripple Creek upon graduation. But despite her good grades and aspirations, Susan received shattering news midway through her studies. Her father, influenced by the undermining Minnie, was cutting off financial support.
Undaunted, Susan borrowed money from a classmate to continue her studies. John also began working his way through school. With the relationship with her father at a standstill, Susan decided to find her mother. Marya Pile Anderson had remarried, but her heart had been forever broken by William’s sudden departure with the children some years before. During the reunion with her mother, Susan learned her powerful father had divorced Marya quite abruptly, with little explanation. Susan vowed to remain in touch with Marya the rest of her life.
Susan’s father was furious when he heard the news, insisting that Susan cut ties with Marya. The young woman refused. When she graduated from medical school in 1897, none of her family attended. To complicate matters further, Susan also had contracted tuberculosis during her internship. Still, she remained optimistic. A letter to her brother John reveals, “One of my instructors will be twelve miles from Cripple Creek this summer and I expect to see him sometimes perhaps.”
Following graduation Susan returned to Cripple Creek, where she lived with her grandparents. Her relationship with her father was still strained. John was in California, and Susan’s friends were few. She set up shop in Suite #3 of the Bi-metallic Block at the corner of 2nd Street and Bennett Avenue. By then, fifty-five other physicians and ten dentists were also calling Cripple Creek home.
Being the only female physician in town must have been difficult. Her biography notes Dr. Anderson was concerned about the prostitutes working one block south on Myers Avenue. Many were infested with drug and alcohol related illnesses, venereal disease and infections from back-alley abortions. Because of her unusual status as a female doctor, it can be assumed that Susan’s premier clientele consisted of many Myers Avenue residents. Naturally the pay was poor, and she received no financial support from her father. In a letter to John, she wrote “. . . it makes me feel hard and bitter and sour when I have to go in old shabby clothes and scrimp and save and board off Grandma and Grandpa . . . ” Meanwhile, Minnie and “her” children used William’s money freely.
Over the next three years, Susan worked at building her business. Finally, one case established Susan’s reputation as a trustworthy physician in Cripple Creek. A local boy had accidentally blown up some dynamite, breaking several bones. An attending surgeon wanted to amputate his arm, but Dr. Anderson insisted on thoroughly cleaning and dressing the wound first. The boys’ arm was saved, and more people began coming to Dr. Anderson. Within two years she had repaid her college loans.
The year 1900 looked very promising. John had returned to Anaconda, where he worked as a miner at the famed Mary McKinney Mine close to town. Susan was residing next to her office at the Bi-metallic Block. Plans were under way for her to marry an unknown companion identified only as “W.R.” in her diary. Indeed, the future looked quite rosy.
Then, in a mysterious turn of events, William and W.R. had a falling out and Susan was left at the altar. On March 12, she sadly notes in her diary, “Pictures returned by W.R.…” In her misery, Susan hardly noticed the condition of her brother. John had been living at Bolton House, a boarding house located across the valley from his father on Anaconda’s Main Street. Just before Susan’s prospective wedding, John had returned from a trip to California and caught the deadly influenza virus.
By the time William and Minnie notified Susan of the severity of John’s illness, he was delirious with pneumonia. On March 16, just a few days after the devastating end of her pending marriage, Susan’s brother died at the tender age of 27. Susan’s diary reads, “John buried today. He is gone from sight but is not far away…Life seems so useless and vain. No one now cares much whether I live or die. John was my best friend on earth and now my best friend is in heaven.” Susan is the only surviving family member noted in John’s newspaper obituary.
William Anderson, no doubt feeling guilty over his eldest son’s death, moved with Minnie and their children to California. Before departing, he issued a final callous command to Susan, forbidding her to stay in Cripple Creek. But Susan had already resolved to leave, traveling around Denver and working as a nurse in Greeley for seven years. She eventually moved to Fraser, located in Grand County, where she earned the nickname Doc Susie.
Doc Susie stayed in Grand County from 1909 to 1956. There, she gained her rightful reputation as a qualified medical doctor. Friends, associates and clients all came to love her. Although her father visited her over the years, Minnie’s absence is refreshingly noticeable in photographs marking the occasion. Perhaps William finally came to his senses and returned to the child he had come to mistreat in years past.
Dr. Susan Anderson died in Denver in 1960. She wanted to be buried next to her beloved brother John in Mt. Pisgah Cemetery, but the original family plot could not be located and Susan was buried elsewhere. Years later, the family plot was found. It is a grey marble pillar with the inscriptions of John, their grandfather, and a cousin on three of its four sides. Upon its discovery, Susan’s inscription was finally added. Dr. H. Susan Anderson, M.D., has two distinctions in Cripple Creek: She was the city’s first female physician, and she is the only resident of Mt. Pisgah Cemetery with two headstones.