Midland’s First Women to Become Doctors Honored with 2018 Alumni Achievement Award

Midland’s First Women to Become Doctors Honored with 2018 Alumni Achievement Award

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Dilley and McConkieIn 1961, two years before the Equal Pay Act and three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dr. Colleen (Willert) Dilley ’61 and Dr. Charlotte (Erickson) McConkie ’61 graduated from Midland. Within the next several years, they shrugged off stereotypes, put up with makeshift living quarters, and overcame daily social stigmas to earn their medical doctorates – two of just three women in their graduating class.

With that, the duo became the first women to graduate from Midland and become practicing physicians. What’s more, they both rolled into selfless careers that not only disrupted the status quo but shone as exemplary, saving and improving countless lives along the way.

Upon graduation from Midland, the pair continued together at the University of Nebraska Medical Center where they were two of just three women in their class. Although neither doctors felt outwardly discrimination against during medical school, the system was clearly not yet set up for women. Men were housed in a fraternity, and nursing students had their own quarters, but the few women medical students were left out of both residences. Instead, they found a small space nearby – rooms in an old psychiatric ward that had been converted into housing.

“I think you had to just not let some things bother you,” says Dilley. “It helped to have Charlotte there. I knew her from school. She is kind of no-nonsense and wouldn’t take any guff from anybody. I was able to follow along in her shadow.”

After completing their medical doctorates, the two parted ways. Medicine carried McConkie to the west coast, where she received a competitive Hematology Fellowship at University of California, San Francisco. Soon after completing her fellowship, she says she considered a return to the Midwest. However, when she tested the waters, she found the environment was still a harsh one for women in medicine.

“We started investigating some of the practices of internal medicine and by that time some of those things were starting to specialize. [I’d ask] if they didn’t have a hematologist-oncologist, would they like one,” recalls McConkie. “Yes, they would very much like one, until they found out I was a woman.”

Still, McConkie had no problem rolling with the punches and quickly landed a job on the west coast with Kaiser Permanente. While there, she says she saw a society that was a bit more open to women doctors than the Midwest. However, it proved to be a warzone in the health arena –the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic.

In total, she practiced 33 years at Kaiser in an intense hematology- oncology setting.  She drastically changed the lives of many, working to cure patients from devastating diseases like AIDS and Cancer.

Over a thousand miles away, Dr. Dilley set out to positively impact the lives of people in a completely different environment and in vastly different ways.  In Fremont at that time, being a woman physician was unprecedented. That didn’t stop Dilley. After completing her internship and practicing for a short stint in Wisner, Nebraska, she came back to Fremont and became the only woman physician in town.

She didn’t just set a new precedent for the community; she spent the next half-century transforming it for the better. In addition to working as an OBGYN with Fremont Health, she took on a list of volunteer roles, including work with Teammates, Altrusa, Care Corps Homeless Services, and a host of others.

With both women parting the water and leading the pack for women physicians, they say they saw ripples, and then waves, in the changing landscape around them.

“I did notice the change; we had three of us who were girls in medical school,” recalls McConkie. “When I was at Hayward the medical schools at that time had almost 50 percent women at Stanford…we’re talking about maybe 25 years after I had gone to medical school, we were starting to see a significant change.”

In the Midwest, Dilley says she lived through a similar seismic shift for women in medicine.

“When I first was a resident I think a lot of women thought it was crazy to go to a woman doctor, and now they prefer it,” says Dilley.

For these pioneers, the bold move into medicine was pushed by a deep passion to help others and drawn out through encouragement from those around them.

McConkie says her natural fascination with science and the body was stoked by her high school teacher and heightened by her biology professor at Midland.

“Teachers don’t realize what an influence they have sometimes on young children,” remarks McConkie.

Similarly, Dr. Dilley credits her move into medicine largely to Midland’s Professor Truxel who, noting her outstanding potential, encouraged her to move from nursing into a medical track. Later in her life, she says she looked up to figures like Gail Walling Yanney, M.D., who finished med school as Dilley was entering it.

“She was very good at what she did, she retained her femininity, and she didn’t put up with any guff from anybody, but she was nice about it,” explains Dilley. “She was quite a mentor and someone to model yourself after.”

In the same way, although both McConkie and Dilley are likely too humble to admit it, they have inspired countless others through their own actions. They set a new path, boldly excelling within a tough climate and, most importantly, directly saved and improved the lives of individuals as well as whole communities.

In recognition of their outstanding contributions, each woman was presented with Midland’s 2018 Alumni Achievement Award. Both women were honored at Midland University’s 2018 Alumni Awards Ceremony, as part of Midland’s annual homecoming celebration.