Dr. Nellie O. Barsness

Medical School:  University of Minnesota Medical School, 1902

Specialty:  Ophthalmology

Career Highlights:

  • State Health Director for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union
  • Physician for the State Reformatory for Women at Shakopee
  • Worked as an opthalmologist with the French Army in World War I through the Women's Oversea Hospitals

Service with AMWA:  Regional Director for the Northwest Central region of AMWA, President of the Minnesota Branch




Dr. Nellie O. Barsness was a pioneer in more ways than one.  Not only was she one of the first women physicians in Minnesota, but also her family was amongst the first of Norwegian settlers in western Minnesota.  Her father, after serving in the Union Army in the Civil War, took up a homestead south of Glenwood, in Pope County.  Dr. Barsness was born in Barsness Township, the township named for the family.

After teaching school for a few years, she entered the University of Minnesota Medical School, and received her medical degree in 1902.  She interned at Luther Hospital in St. Paul.  At about this time the first x-ray machines were being used.  Dr. Barsness lost no time in learning to operate one, and she attended the first x-ray conferences ever held, at Niagara Falls in 1904.

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, women physicians were not accepted in the Medical Corps; but they were in the French Army.  Dr. Barsness was appointed ophthalmologist at a hospital in Cempuis (with the Women’s Oversea Hospitals) where gassed solders were treated.  She was decorated by the French Minister of War for her work done under the most hazardous of conditions.  After the armistice, to give respite to the French doctors who had worked so hard during the four years of war, Dr. Barsness conducted clinics in Nancy and in Rheims.

Returning to St. Paul late in 1919, she was physician for the State Reformatory for Women at Shakopee.  For several years, Dr. Barsness was State Health Director for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and helped to stimulate greater interest in health measures throughout the State.

She took on postgraduate work in Berlin, Vienna, New York, and Chicago.  Her studies included otolaryngology, ophthalmology, and dermatology, and she made good use of those specialties in her general practice.

Dr. Barsness was past Regional Director for the Northwest Central region of AMWA and past president of the Minnesota Branch.  Through her labors and her triumphs, younger generations of women physicians have been inspired.  Her accomplishments stimulate and encourage progressive interest for young and old alike; her honors reflect honor on all women physicians.

Adapted from Bernard MT, “Nellie O. Barsness, M.D.” JAMWA April 1953, p. 151.

Photo Courtesy of Drexel University School of Medicine, Archives and Special Collections.

Back to Faces of AMWA  Make a Nomination