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Monday, August 9, 2010

Esther Pohl in Alaska

The Alaska/Klondike gold rush drew much of Esther Pohl's family from Portland in 1897-1898. Her husband Emil and brother Fred were on the first ship from Portland in July 1897. That fall Esther's brother Will, her mother Annie Clayson, and her younger sisters Charlotte and Annie May joined them.

Esther attended post-graduate medical clinics in Chicago that fall of 1897 and joined her family in Skagway in the spring of 1898. That spring the area suffered a severe epidemic of spinal meningitis and both she and Emil put their medical skills to work. In notes for a biography in the Esther Lovejoy Collection at OHSU, Esther recalled that "in this emergency the minister of the little church with the big stove took the lead. Funds were raised and a log-stable built for mules was converted into a hospital for meningitis cases." 

According to Howard Clifford (The Skawgay Story [Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing, 1975], 30) this was the Presbyterian Reverend Robert McCahon Dickey, who raised funds and dedicated the Union Church in December, 1897. There is a splendid image of the church at Alaska's Digital Archives. It served as the town's first school and, according to Clifford, "a community hospital, humane society, and a club for both men and women." Perhaps Esther or Emil or both provided medical care here in the building's function as hospital.

Esther Pohl would become Portland City Health Officer in 1907. Here in Skagway some nine years earlier she had a powerful first-hand experience with an epidemic and in organizing a public health response. And she would draw on all of these experiences as a leader of transnational medical relief after the First World War.

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