Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Hazel Louise McGaffey, MD

Byron McGaffey
Edited by Ann McGaffey
Priest River, Idaho, United States


Hazel Louise McGaffey and patient
Dr. Hazel McGaffey and patient with tuberculosis
Photography by John M. Miller
Courtesy of Seattle Post-Intelligencer

She was not famous and came from an unlikely medical career wellspring. Hazel Louise McGaffey (née Anderson) was born 21 August 1924 on her pioneer parents’ farm near Opheim, Montana, some of the last homesteading done in the 48 states. She was the second oldest of four children and recalls playing with prairie buffalo skulls. Her pets included Sparky, the coyote; she idolized Chief, the reliable draft horse, and their smart dog Shep, trained to bring the Herefords in from miles away. Her brother Arnold found a crumpled bugle believed to have been cast off from Sitting Bull’s retreating Sioux in flight from the Little Big Horn into Canada.

Hazel attended the one-room Wild Rose country school with combined eight grades. She was the only pupil in her grade and knew all the literature recited by upper classmen. She rode horseback cross-country to attend school, carrying wrapped hot potato hand warmers during harsh winter storms. Her sister Ellen and younger brothers Dan and Arnold helped run the farm with the prolonged illness and death of their father Daniel Gideon from pernicious anemia when Hazel was fourteen years-old. She bought a guitar by saving a dime per can of cream from the cream separator; she and Ellen once got to sing on the radio in Glasgow, Montana. She played the flugelhorn and like all rural girls played high school basketball. With seasonally impassable roads, Hazel boarded and attended high school ten miles away in Opheim. In the summer of 1941, she and Arnold built a baby skunk house from old building boards, planning on two to three dollars per hide. “Hazel was the planner and I was the go getter for things. … By fall they were good size but we found out there was no market for them. So our first big business failed.”

Dan recounted the summer twilight story of Hazel and the Model A approaching across the rolling prairie to fetch him for supper, singing out loud. The singing lurched and the headlights disappeared. Dan stopped plowing to pull the vehicle and his chagrined sister out of the abandoned homestead dirt cellar, another Depression-era casualty. Hazel spoke of her mother Anna’s kind and necessary attentions to neighboring women to attend births, the farm circuit visits from the Watkins Products man with vanilla and other sundries and the resulting meal he might expect, the joy of boxed oranges that arrived on the Great Northern Railroad, the clothing or dishtowels made from flour sacks on the treadle Singer sewing machine, and the tremendous before dawn baking for the army of seasonal threshing crews.

On completing high school in 1941, Hazel graduated from Medical Secretarial School at Northern Montana College, Havre, Montana, and worked on the Fort Belknap Indian reservation. There she noted the high rate of tuberculosis and alcoholism. She obtained her medical degree at the University of Minnesota during and following World War II. She caricatured some of her professors, drawing from memory and once hitchhiked with her roommate Millie Hanson to Montana for a summer break. She flipped hamburgers to make ends meet, briefly took flying lessons but ran out of money, and married Byron McGaffey in Minneapolis, June 12, 1949.  Hazel was the first woman medical intern at the Swedish Hospital in Seattle, Washington. The program hired a seamstress to make suitable white uniforms and skirts. She was paid $50 a month, was often on call every other night, and was denied her planned internal medicine residency because of her pregnancy. Daughter Ann was born in 1951. Hazel worked at Seattle’s Firland Tuberculosis Sanatorium, witnessing the transition from confined severely ill patients to the sanitarium-emptying effects of isoniazid.

She moved to New York City to complete a six month Bellevue Hospital residency training in chest diseases. Thereafter the family lived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where son William was born in 1954, followed by residency in clinical and anatomical pathology in Denver Colorado. In 1960 Hazel repaid training time at the Department of Pathology at the Oklahoma Veterans Hospital in Oklahoma City.

In 1963, Hazel was the Director of Pathology at Sacred Heart Medical Hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She consulted at smaller southeast Idaho hospitals and ran a school of medical technology – representing their interests and continued self-learning at American Medical Association and American Society of Clinical Pathologists meetings. In 1964, she was elected Bonneville County Coroner for two consecutive terms, running on either party ticket and determined to replace untrained coroners. She autopsied, researched, and published on the sudden infant death syndrome. Subsequently, Hazel practiced in Butte, Montana, retired with her husband in 1990 to a small ranch near Priest River, Idaho, to garden and raise Hereford cattle. She died on December 21, 2012. Hazel’s life was a wondrous embrace of modernity and research in medicine and mindfulness of Depression-era destitution, resilient family life, and short-grass prairie beauty.



BYRON K. MCGAFFEY met Hazel Anderson in October, 1948 at a University of Minnesota Union Hall Friday night dance; they married on June 12, 1949. He was born March 17, 1928 in Minneapolis and was raised on a Lakefield, Minnesota self-sustaining farm by his great aunt and great uncle, Gena and Jack. Known as “Buddy,” he recalls a spare, hard-working yet comfortable Depression-era farm life. He is proud of his post-high school June, 1946 service enlistment, 82nd Airborne paratrooper training, 1953 University of Washington graduation majoring in history, and career teaching high school American history and government in three districts.


ANN MCGAFFEY, MD, FAAFP, while growing up, was attached to Natural History and to her mother’s and Grandmother Anna’s stories, ranging from Montana homestead life to the Space Age. Grandma said, “The ‘good old days’ were quite hard.” Family moves from Seattle to New York, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Idaho, childhood laboratory visits, college hospital laboratory summer jobs, and stories about medicine and coroner-related events brought insights into biological and cultural diversity. Ann, husband Terry D. Jacobsen, PhD (botany), and children Alexis, Abigail, and Andrew, often drive summers to camp and visit the homestead and the Great Northwest.


Summer 2014  |  Sections  |  Women in Medicine

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