Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Elizabeth Gillette, Schenectady's First Woman Surgeon

This blog was written by Grems Doolittle Library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Even as a child, Bessie Gillette didn’t conform to the norm. When other girls were making clothes for their dolls, she was making furniture. While their dolls were the mother or daughter of the dollhouse, Bessie’s was a doctor. When they played girls' games, she ran a drugstore from the family woodshed using tapioca from the kitchen as pills and colored water as potions. This wasn’t surprising considering almost all of her mother’s family were doctors and surgeons. They were also men.

Born in Granby, Connecticut on October 21, 1874, Elizabeth “Bessie” Van Rensselaer Gillette was the daughter of Albert Henry Gillette, a carpenter, and Mary Pinney Jewett Gillette. Her mother’s family were early settlers in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and her father’s family stretched back to the settlers of Gramby and Simsbury, Connecticut. Her family boasts several well-known ancestors, including Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers and Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut.  Her middle name comes from her mother’s uncle, Van Rensselaer Pinney, who died at the beginning of the Civil War. She had two older sisters, Angie Emma, who was born in 1869, and Lura Mary, who died two days after her birth in 1872.

In 1882, when Bessie was eight years old, a typhoid epidemic swept through their town. Bessie, her sister, and several cousins were victims. Bessie was sick for months, but her sister Angie and some cousins did not survive. After her recovery, she was a nervous and weak child. To build up strength, she spent much of her time outdoors riding horses, skating, climbing trees, and participating in sports.

After attending local district schools, Bessie was sent to a boarding school in Simsbury at the age of ten, and three years later to the Misses Booth Private School in Hartford. After graduation she attended Woodside College for Girls in Hartford. As a young woman with a mind of her own, Elizabeth wanted to follow in the footsteps of family members and become a physician. Her family and friends advised against it, thinking she was too delicate. She persisted and entered the New York Medical College and Hospital for Women in 1894. She graduated in 1898, losing only 3 days during that time to illness.

Elizabeth Gillette, circa 1890s. Photo from Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Now Dr. Gillette, she interned at Women’s Hospital in New York City, receiving her medical license in 1899. She continued working there as a staff physician and also worked in several of the city’s clinics. Additionally, she volunteered time in Mission Schools where she even taught stenography, keeping two lessons ahead of her students.

In 1900, at the age of 25, Elizabeth moved to Schenectady where she had an uncle, watchmaker and jeweler Charles Bickelmann. She opened a private practice on June 1st of that year in a home she purchased at 254 (now 252) Union Street, at the corner of College Street. Although not the first female physician in Schenectady (that distinction goes to Dr. Janet Murray who opened a practice on Jay Street in 1893), Elizabeth was the first licensed female surgeon in Schenectady County. While quite unusual for the time, she was warmly welcomed by her male counterparts and later invited to join the Medical Society of Schenectady County.
Dr. Gillette's house at 252 Union Street. Photo by G. Denisoff, 2020.

Elizabeth was a familiar figure around Schenectady. She often made house calls, first by horse and carriage and soon after by automobile. In 1904, she bought a 14 horse power Maxwell and was often asked by local car dealers to be photographed in her car to inspire other women to purchase one.

Dr. Gillette in her 1904 Maxwell. Photo from the Gillette Family Photo File, Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

After encountering several cases of cruelty to children in her practice, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to create a Humane Society in Schenectady which later included a home and shelter. In addition to being a founder, she also served as secretary of the society for many years. During World War I, she became involved in home front efforts and taught first aid classes and home care to soldiers’ families.

Elizabeth continued to study medicine all her life to keep up to date on new methods and procedures, especially in surgery, bacteriology and general medicine. She became a certified examiner for mental illnesses and a member of the surgical group of Ellis Hospital. Upon her 50th year of practice, she was honored by the Schenectady Medical Society for her meritorious service.

Dr. Gillette in her office, circa 1950. Photo published in the Daily Gazette.
With several lawmaker ancestors, it was no surprise that Elizabeth had a keen interested in politics. In 1919, a year before women obtained the vote, she was encouraged by Mayor George Lunn to run as a Democrat for the New York State Assembly from Schenectady District 2 and won by only 247 votes, becoming the first woman in upstate New York to be elected to the legislature and the last Democrat from Schenectady County to win until 1964. Her focus was on healthcare, regulation of drugs and mandating physicals for children working in factories. She also worked on local projects such as the construction of a well and pumping station to increase water supply and for funding to continue bridge and canal construction in her district all while maintaining her practice. At that time, terms lasted only one year and in 1920 she was defeated by Republican William Campbell who later became Mayor of Schenectady. She always encouraged women to become involved in politics, and in 1957, advised, “Vote in every election, go to every political meeting possible, learn all you can about political affairs – and always be a lady.”

Dr. Gillette, Legislative Portrait. Photo from New York Red Book, 1920.
She shared her large home with several boarders over the years. Around 1910 her parents came to live with her until their deaths in the 1920s. She was also interested in travel and in the 1930s took several prolonged ocean voyages. In 1931 she sailed to England and France, in 1933 from New York to Los Angeles through the Panama Canal and to Italy in 1935.

Elizabeth Gillette practiced medicine in Schenectady for six decades and was once nominated for the New York State “Doctor of the Year” award. By the mid 1950s she had slowed down a bit but still described herself as “one of those hard-core Connecticut Yankees.” She stopped making night calls and delivering babies, but declared, “I’m not in the operating room much anymore but I still set broken bones, something I love to do,” and planned to keep working “as long as my body will let me, I want to die in harness.”

Elizabeth Gillette and Agnes Haren. Photo from the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

Dr. Gillette retired in 1959 at the age of 85, but stayed involved with civic organizations including the Schenectady Humane Society, the Schenectady Historical Society (a life member), and as life member and vice president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Gillette died at the age of 90 on June 26th, 1965, in her home. She never married and was survived by several cousins and her longtime live-in housekeeper and friend Agnes Haren. After private services locally, she was buried in her family plot at Granby Cemetery in her birthplace of Granby, Connecticut.

Elizabeth Gillette's gravestone. Photo by M. Cooley, 2015. Posted on

She has been honored posthumously over the years for her contributions to the medical field. In 2000, Dr. Gillette was a recipient of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce Women of Excellence Award. She earned recognition in 2017 as an inductee to the New York Historic Women of Distinction list by the New York State Senate.

Elizabeth’s Union Street home changed hands several times over the years, eventually falling into disrepair. Efforts were undertaken in the early 2000s by Schenectady County to restore it. The home is unique because it is one of the only Italianate style homes in the Stockade and serves as a gateway to the historic district. The exterior now looks similar to when she lived there and it still carries on a medical tradition with a woman chiropractor practicing on the first floor.

"Biography of Elizabeth Van R. Gillette," The Medical Society of the County of Schenectady Capital Region Scrapbook: Pioneers in Medicine, Daily Gazette, by Jeff Wilkin, 7/13/2009
"Dr. Elizabeth Van Rensselaer “Bessie” Gillette," Find a Grave database and images
"Dr. Elizabeth Gillette," Schenectady Daily Gazette Obituary, June 28, 1965 
New York Red Book, An Illustrated State Manual, 1920
New York State Census 1905, 1915, 1925.
Schenectady County buys Gillette House, Spotlight News, by Jessica Harding, 9/14/2009.
United States Federal Census, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
Women of Distinction, NYS Senate, 2017 Historical Inductees Honoring Women’s History Month


  1. Wonderful article. Makes one proud to be from this area and most of all of her accomplishments as a woman leading the way for us to follow.

  2. Wonderful article.I would always admire Dr.Gillette everytime as a child/teenager in the late 1950's- 60's when my parents had to take me to our family physician Dr.Catherine Zaia. I would look at all the physicians photos from the Schenectady County Medical Society in the waiting room.Circa 1947-57-67.

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