Nearly 100 people gathered Saturday morning at a Battell Chapel memorial service for Dr. Elizabeth Harrison, the third woman to receive a degree from the Yale School of Medicine.
On Jan. 5, at age 103, Harrison died peacefully in her sleep at the Whitney Center, a residence for the elderly in Hamden. She had been having an extremely difficult time for the last few weeks of her life, said Braxton McKee, a doctor who worked in Harrison’s office building.
After graduating from the medical school, she went on to complete her residency and internship at Royal Victoria Hospital, affiliated with McGill University in Canada. Around 1930, she opened her own pediatric practice in New Haven and began to plow her way to the top of her field.
Whitney Center Chaplain Sharon Benton said the service sought to honor Harrison, known more affectionately as Betsy, in a way that she would have enjoyed. Benton described the service as a celebration in music and story, a sort of thanksgiving.
After Benton’s welcome and the communal singing of “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” Harrison’s nephew, Sam Harrison, delivered the eulogy. He described several trademarks of Harrison’s career.
“House calls were her trademark,” he said. “She believed in house calls despite the trend of the time. She treated the ‘whole child.'”
Harrison even attached a snow plow to her Jeep so she could reach her patients in any situation, Sam Harrison said.
Dr. Dave Carlson, who worked in Harrison’s office building, said Harrison had survived major surgery to remove a safety pin from her intestines when she was only nine months old. But when she was older, she pondered how she had ever managed to swallow a safety pin. Such curiosity was innate in Harrison, and Carlson said it was “the beginning of a passion, of a ferocious dedication she had for helping children.”
“She stands as a beacon of inspiration for what people can overcome,” Carlson said.
Harrison’s nephew Ross gave the last set of prepared remarks. Ross Harrison spoke of his extremely close relationship with his aunt.
“All my life, she’s been at the center of my existence,” Ross Harrison said. “I’ve always relied on her for love and guidance. The woman had nothing but love. She was not indulgent, but strong, capable of tough love.”
Harrison also read part of a letter that School of Medicine Dean David Kessler wrote.
“Her legend as a physician and caregiver preceded her at this institution,” Kessler said in the letter. “Dr. Harrison paved the way for women after her. Yale medical school is proud to call her a daughter of Yale.”
Following Harrison’s remarks, the service took on a more musical tone. Ross Harrison played a number of piano pieces, with others joining him in one of the performances. Some couples were even dancing at the front of the chapel.
Donna Harrison, Harrison’s niece by marriage, described Betsy Harrison’s outgoing personality.
“She didn’t put a lot of stock into other people’s opinions,” Donna Harrison said. “It was a challenge to graduate from medical school when she did, but she did it. She was full of common sense, independent minded. If she thought something was the right thing to do, she did it.”
Donna Harrison further explained that Betsy Harrison did not often talk about any prejudice she might have faced or any difficulties she might have had as a woman in a man’s field.
“She ignored the fact that she was a groundbreaking woman,” she said.