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Woman doctor made history

Born on a Lincolnton plantation in 1882, Connie M. Guion, M.D. grew up to become known as the dean of women doctors in the United States.
“She revolutionized medicine,” said Darrell Harkey, Lincoln County Historical Coordinator.
Guion is the only woman recognized with a historical marker in Lincoln County, and it wasn’t an easy honor to earn – The North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Committee originally rejected the request.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, they’re not going to turn us down on this,’” Harkey said.
After an appeals process attended by Harkey, Daniel Barefoot and the Rev. Bob Wise, the marker was approved.
“They saw how adamant we were about this,” Harkey said. “I guess maybe that made a difference.”
During her 88 years, Guion definitely secured her place in the history books.
She was the first living woman in United States to have a hospital building named after her. She was the first woman professor of clinical medicine in the U.S. She was also the first woman to become a member of the medical board of the New York Hospital – Cornell Medical Center.
Before all these triumphs, however, she had to prove to people a woman could become a successful physician.
“She wanted to be a doctor and they laughed at her,” Harkey said.
It was while growing up on Riverbend Plantation that Guion decided she wanted to be a doctor. On the tobacco farm (which is located near Bi-Lo on N.C. 27 West), Guion played doctor to her pets, dolls and siblings.
At the age of 10, she left Lincoln County for formal schooling in Charlotte. She returned to Lincolnton to go to Miss Kate Shipp’s School, a private school for girls.
Education continued at Northfield Seminary and Wellesley College, both in Massachusetts.
She had suitors, but decided not to marry.
“She was torn between two worlds, but she chose the way she went,” Harkey said.
After a short career as a teacher, she went on to receive her master’s degree in biochemistry from Cornell University and at the age of 31 enrolled in Cornell Medical College.
Many people thought a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the competitive environment. Guion proved the naysayers wrong, graduating at the top of her class.
She spent the rest of her life devoted to her work. During an influenza epidemic in New York City in 1918 that eventually claimed more than 50,000 lives, Guion worked day and night. Part of that job was riding through the city on ambulances.
“You see the trash-collection guys, how they ride on the back?” Harkey asked. “That’s what she did.”
Despite the fact some men refused to be treated by a woman doctor, Guion climbed the ranks of her profession, eventually gaining a teaching position at Cornell University, where she taught for 45 years.
She was also well-known for her service to the poor and her work with outpatient facilities.
She received numerous honorary degrees and worked 12-hour days until she retired at the age of 87.
(This is the first story in a four-part series celebrating Women’s History Month)

by Sarah Grano

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