Looking back over her career, Alice Drew Chenoweth, MD, noted that her hometown of Albany, Missouri, was an unlikely place for a shy child to be transformed into a physician. Yet from her small-town beginnings, she eventually made her way to the nation’s capital, serving in a number of distinguished federal government positions at a time when few women held such posts.
Although medicine was a highly respected career in her family, Alice Chenoweth did not grow up wanting to become a doctor. Her father had dreamed of studying medicine but he could not afford it, and instead became a veterinarian. His son also went into veterinary medicine. Alice Chenoweth eventually fulfilled her father’s dream of having a doctor in the family, but her path was not a straightforward one. After attending junior college in her hometown, she enrolled at Northwestern University in Chicago, receiving her B.S. degree in chemistry with “highest distinction” in 1924. She was considering studying medicine, but her father discouraged it. Thinking the matter closed, she decided to accept a scholarship in history from Northwestern. After receiving an M.A. in 1926, she spent the next two years as an instructor at a women’s college in Montgomery, Alabama.
Alice Chenoweth had not entirely dismissed a future in medicine. In a conversation with a cousin who was dean of women at Vanderbilt University, she said she was considering either a Ph.D. in history or a medical degree. Her cousin immediately arranged an interview for her at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine, and she was later accepted. When she wrote of her plans to her father, he endorsed her decision, but talked of the “hardships and indignities” she might suffer and his doubts of her physical fitness for the profession. She took up the challenge, consistently rating at the top of her class. Graduating with an M.D. degree in 1932, she interned in pediatrics at Strong Memorial Hospital, the teaching arm of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, where she met her husband. In 1933 she was accepted as a resident at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, staying on for a second year as assistant chief resident.
Having always enjoyed research, Dr. Chenoweth accepted a research fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1937, but soon began to miss contact with patients. She decided to join a partner in a pediatrics practice, where she remained for the next four years. In 1941 she married John Pate and they moved to Louisville, Kentucky where he worked for the Kentucky Department of Health. Dr Chenoweth accepted a position as director of Maternal and Child Health in the same department, supervising a staff of nutritionists and a network of clinics for mothers and children. As World War II began, she took on the administration of a wartime program, Emergency Maternity and Infant Care, which provided health care to the families of servicemen and women.
At the end of WWII in 1945, when her husband was transferred to Washington, D.C., Dr. Chenoweth moved with him and their young son, finding work as a research pediatrician in the U.S. Children’s Bureau (later part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare). Not long after, she moved to the Children Bureau’s International Division, where she planned educational programs for fellows from abroad, especially those who dealt with maternal and child health issues.
During the final years of her career until her retirement in 1973, Dr. Chenoweth served as chief of the Division of Health Services in the Children’s Bureau, consulting on state-run programs like those she had administered in Kentucky.
Dr. Chenoweth was also active in professional groups, including the American Medical Women’s Association, the Medical Women’s International Association, the American Public Health Association, the American School Health Association, and the American Board of Pediatrics. She died at age 95 at her home in Alexandria, far from her small-town beginnings. In an autobiographical account, Dr Chenoweth later noted that the life of a physician, wife, and mother was not an easy one, but it was “rewarding and exciting.”Return to AMWA Blackwell Exhibit