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The 8 interviews included in this collection were conducted for the Old Dominion University History course 495/595: "Recapturing Women's History: Local and National," taught by Dr. Dorothy Johnson in the Fall of 1982. Each interview includes a brief biographical sketch of the person interviewed and a typed transcript.

Kathryn Hill Venner became a physician in 1944 and continued in a practice with her husband in Virginia Beach, Virginia for more than 40 years. The interview discusses her family and educational background and her views on the changing role of women in medicine over the years. The interview includes a biographical sketch of Hill and a research paper on women physicians.


Interview with
DR. KATHRYN HILL

November 5, 1982
Interviewer: Dena Miller

Listen to Interview

Transcript

MILLER: Before we get into your career as a physician during 1945 - 1960, could you tell me a little about your background, more specifically, what or who in your early life motivated you towards becoming a physician?

HILL: I'm a little unusual in that both my parents were physicians. I suppose that had something to do with it, as well as taking aptitude tests. I was worried that the fact that they were physicians might be influencing me towards a field that I wasn't really interested in. But, I took the aptitude tests, and it worked out. I never had any other goal in mind. So, I was one of the lucky ones.

MILLER: As you see yourself today, which parent do you more closely resemble in attitudes and values?

HILL: I can't tell. I mean I don't know, because I was not objective with my parents at the time and probably am still not (objective). I think my mother was the ‘boss' of the family. But, my father was very nice, good, (and) kind.

MILLER: Do you feel you were a little bit of both maybe, a combination?

HILL: Yes.

MILLER: What were your parents' attitudes toward education? Did they hold different standards for male and female children?

HILL: Well, they didn't have any male children, but I would assume no, they would not have different attitudes. They would expect girls to achieve as much as they wanted to and were capable of doing. My mother came from a Danish immigrant family. There were seven children (in her family). One of the men turned out to be a minister, two sisters were both school teachers, two went on to medical school. So, they just expected to be educated. I was the youngest of a whole bunch of girls. I think they were all educated school teachers or at least probably went past high school. Interesting ...

MILLER: What were their (the family's) attitudes toward you going into medical school and trying to become a physician? Were they supportive of it?

HILL: They were supportive, but they didn't urge me. I had a sister who was not the least bit interested. She became a librarian, loved books. I think my parents expected me to do what I wanted to do. In the line of a career. I don't know that they gave me a free rein. They had no feeling on the subject. I'm sure they were happy.

MILLER: How did you plan on financing your way through school? Did your parents help you with that.

HILL: They did it!

MILLER: That's always good to have support.

HILL: It helps. I think I paid my mother back. My father died. But, I went back and practiced with my mother during the war (World War II). I lived in her home. She paid me all of one hundred dollars a month which was plenty for me. I didn't need any money. I helped pay her back for paying for my education. I didn't need any money during the war. I didn't have any husband to go out with. I had one child I had to buy beautiful clothes for. But, that was about it.

MILLER: Do you think your mother was a role model for you since she was a physician also -- seeing that women can do it?

HILL: I'm sure. It never dawned on me that I couldn't (be a physician).

MILLER: It's interesting. I've been meeting these strongwilled women. It's good. It gives me confidence. During the late 1930's it was difficult for women to get into medical school. How did you go about gaining entry into medical school? How many schools did you apply to (before being accepted)? Was it difficult?

HILL: No, I just applied at the University of Nebraska which is in Omaha, the Medical School of Omaha. I lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I wanted to live at home and go to medical school. So, I applied, and they let me in. I don't know how that happened. They didn't have quotas then either.

MILLER: They did have quotas then? Just at the University of Nebraska?

HILL: Any place I don't think. They didn't care if you were a minority or anything, just that you were qualified. I mean they didn't have quotas that said they had to take so many. They probably had quotas in reverse, ‘We won't take anymore of them!' Nebraska didn't have any minorities. I mean there were no Blacks, very few Jewish people, so, women were the only minority.

MILLER: How many women were in your class?

HILL: We started out with two, but one girl dropped out to work for a year. So, I finished alone.

MILLER: How were you treated by your professors and fellow classmates?

HILL: I don't think the professors made any difference at all. The men, as far as I know (were) nice (and) friendly. I'm sure some of them looked down their respective noses at me, we female physicians and medics. I wasn't aware of any great prejudice.

MILLER: Do you feel your self-confidence had anything to do with that?

HILL: No, because I didn't have any self-confidence. I came from a girl's school to medical school. I had never been around any men. (Laughingly) So, maybe I didn't know they were any different.

MILLER: Did you feel like you were in extreme competition?

HILL: Yes, I was scared to death the first year. One thing I discovered was these men, when they were freshmen, all bragged about how wonderful they were, how smart they were, (and) how invincible they were. I knew I didn't fit into that category. I was scared I would not pass. Maybe this bragging probably gave me an inferiority complex, because I knew I wasn't that smart. But it turned out they weren't so smart. They weren't much smarter than I was. I think they were boosting up their own egos.

MILLER: How did you handle that?

HILL: (I) just kept studying. I spent a great amount of time studying the first (year). At Nebraska, they take one hundred students. By the end of the first year they only have seventy-five. So, you know, I don't know if it is that way any longer, but twenty five are going to flunk out. (Laughingly) That's enough to give you an inferiority complex. I studied very hard. I was living at home and didn't have anyone to study with, which was a great disadvantage. I didn't live in a fraternity house. I just didn't have anybody to study with.

MILLER: Did you have many friends while you were in medical school? Did you have many friends at that time, since you were living at home and your other classmates were male?

HILL: No, no, no . . . (I was) sort of alone. I road the streetcar to school - - ten to twelve miles on the streetcar in the morning and night. I had time to study then.

MILLER: So, Council Bluffs is located . . .?

HILL: It's right across the river from Omaha. Right across the Missouri River. It's like Portsmouth and Norfolk except they didn't have ferry boats or tunnels. Just land and a bridge.

MILLER: During your four years at the University of Nebraska, do you recall having any female role models, any female faculty members, anyone you could talk to?

HILL: There weren't any. I don't think there were any women on the teaching staff. And there were probably in the four years, eight or nine girls, ten girls sometimes. So, we all plugged along together.

MILLER: What particular problems did you encounter in medical school that specifically related to you being a female?

HILL: I don't think any, except that I didn't have anybody to study with until I met my husband. We studied together (during) the last two years. I went to school a lot, and he didn't always go to school. It was advantageous to both of us. I knew what we were supposed to study, and he was very intelligent, and knew how to study. He was working. It was hard for him to go to school all the time. I mean not to miss any classes.

MILLER: After graduating from medical school were you required to do an internship?

HILL: Well, I don't think you were, but everybody needs it.

MILLER: So, you did?

HILL: Did.

MILLER: Was it difficult to gain admittance into an internship program? How many programs did you apply for?

HILL: I would say for a good hospital, such as the New York hospitals, there were very few places for women. I think the best internships were Philadelphia Women's Hospital or, I went to the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. I applied at both of them. I don't really know where else I did apply, because I wanted a good hospital.

MILLER: How many years did you spend there.

HILL: I spent one year at the New York Infirmary and one year at the New York Hospital which is Cornell Medical School. By that time, that was 1942, the war was in the background, and Dr. Lavene at the New York Hospital decided that he'd be better with a female house staff, because the men were going to be drafted. So, it was a big opening for us, because we could get training after 1942 because of the scarcity of men. He (Dr. Lavene) he wouldn't have to give us up before our training was over. The men could either get patriotic or drafted anytime.

MILLER: What happened after the war ended? Were you pushed out?

HILL: No. I was through by then. I think it was the beginning of the opportunity for women. We found out we weren't totally helpless (or) dumb.

MILLER: Did you meet up with any discrimination or isolation while you were going through school or during your internships or residencies?

HILL: I really am not aware of that. I don't know whether I had thick skin or didn't appreciate it, the fact that I was being discriminated against. I know I hear about that, but I wasn't aware of it.

I had the same training and the same background, so I didn't need to feel inferior as a woman. I might have felt inferior knowing where my weaknesses were, but not because I was a woman.

MILLER: Can you think of any other effects World War II produced upon the medical profession or you personally?

HILL: Well, it took a lot of young men away. (It) gave women training a better opportunity to get good residencies like surgical residencies. Surgery was not for women until then. I had a school mate who went to Memorial Hospital. She was a year ahead of me in school. (She) got the opportunity to go to Memorial and got an excellent surgical residency, which would never have happened two or three years before that, even though she was capable. As far as the men are concerned, it was hard on them, interrupted their training, and probably interrupted some lives just like any other war.

MILLER: How do you feel your work experiences would have changed had you been a man instead of a woman? Do you feel there would have been a difference in any part of your training or after you got out of medical school?

HILL: Well, if I hadn't had motherhood, I might have gone on to have been somebody bigger, greater, more famous, more important. Women are doing that now I think. But, I grew up in the age when the male role was to earn a living and the female was to get the dinner, wash the dishes, make the beds, and all that, and take care of the children. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying that's the way I was raised. That's my attitude. It still is. I'm not so sure women's liberation is the best . . . I know it isn't the best thing for marriage. It may be the best thing for women, I don't know.

MILLER: I would now like to focus on your personal life in regard to your career. What effect did your career choice or professional life have upon your personal life?

HILL: I chose to have a private practice, without a partner, which was the common way to have a private practice thirty-five years ago. This was time consuming. We (my husband and I) never had any time we could call our own. The phone rang, and now you say go to the emergency room or call your partner. But, we never had any time we could call our own. If the patient was sick, we made a lot of house calls, which were not necessary, were time consuming. We put ourselves out, a lot more than I do now and a lot more than the modern doctor does I think. They don't have to because most of them have partners or associates. And, doctors don't make house calls much. Thank goodness, nobody asks them to. That's why they don't make house calls. Nobody asks you to make house calls, so you don't have to say no or yes.

MILLER: How would you describe the reactions of your husband to your role as a physician during the years of 1945 - 1960?

HILL: Since my husband is a physician, he knew what he was getting when he got me. He's been very supportive. He used to believe in being waited on: and all those good things that men got. But, over and above all that, he was very supportive, and anything I felt I wanted to do, could do, was capable of doing, he felt I should do it. He's felt that way about his daughters too. He thinks that women are people, and people should achieve what they're capable of doing or interested in doing. So, he was very supportive. A lot of medical families don't last, but I think it's because of the male.

MILLER: How long have you been in practice together?

HILL: We've been here since 1947.

MILLER: And you've had your practice together that whole time?

HILL: Yes. I have to give him credit now. There are a lot of people who wouldn't believe that, because he is (laughingly) a ‘macho' man. He does believe in women and their ability.

MILLER: You have seven children. Daughters, sons?

HILL: Three daughters and four sons. That's an old picture (as she points to a family portrait hanging on her office wall). We got the last one through college this year.

MILLER: Could you give me a comparative description of your daily life before and after the birth of your children? How did your life change?

HILL: Well, I had one child almost before I started to practice. So, I've always had a child. I had an excellent babysitter for her in Council Bluffs when I was with my mother. I would take Mary to her (the babysitter's) home. They took care of her as if she were their child or grandchild. Played with her and did wonderful things for her, toilet trained her, taught her table manners, and all those good things that I've never been able to accomplish since. The second little girl went the same way and that was nice.

Then we moved here. We had various maids, babysitters. When Bob was a baby I took him with me to a lady at the beach (Virginia Beach) when I went to the office. He went to the hospital with me, not because I was partial to Bob, but because he was a baby, and I didn't like to leave a ‘baby' with a maid. I always felt that it was easier to leave a child that could tell, than to leave a baby who couldn't tell you what went on.

My mother came to live with us about 1950, and lived with us until she died. (She) lived with us for about five or six years. She didn't do any work. She was old. But, she was a very good person to have in the house. She kept the help on her toes. And it wasn't like leaving the children alone. As they got older they kept each other company. People say, ‘How did you do that with seven children?' I think it's much easier to do it with seven than with one. Because you couldn't leave one child, but seven of them could fight, sing, play, keep each other company. I think it was easier in a way. And, I had capable children.

MILLER: What type of conflictual situations arose after you became a mother? How did you respond to these situations?

HILL: There were a lot of times I was torn between doing my duty as a physician and doing my duty as a mother. I never let housework interfere with my other commitments. Sometimes I would have to choose one and other times I would have to choose the other. I didn't neglect the children, but I might have to pile them all in the car and take them with me, or run (and) find a friendly neighbor who would take care of a couple of them who weren't in school. Most of the time I could take them with me. For one thing, way back then we didn't know kids would get kidnapped. So, I took some chances I guess. I always took them to DePaul (Hospital) in Norfolk and let them play out in the lawn, or around the statue of Mary, or make general nuisances of themselves. But, that was part of their amusement. Then we would go to Sandbridge on our day off (and) have fun.

MILLER: Were you on a tight time schedule during those years?

HILL: Yes, definitely.

MILLER: What effect did your role as a physician have upon your children? How did they respond to your career?

HILL: I feel very fortunate that I have seven children who love me, respect me, (and) want to be with me. They're all sort of spoiled. I suppose guilt came in and said you have to do this for them because you haven't been with them. But, I don't know anybody who has seven more loving children. It' s a pretty good recommendation.

MILLER: So, most of the time they supported you in your career?

HILL: Oh they would become disappointed when their plans didn't work out, disappointed when I would get home late, or things didn't go just right. I think it also made them more independent and self-sufficient. They're pretty good people. I feel lucky they are all nice, and they want to come and see their old mom and dad in their spare time. I don't mean they hang around us. They like us!

MILLER: During the time you were raising your children what type of social life did you have? Did you have the time?

HILL: I didn't have any luncheons, teas, (or) club meetings, but I had nightlife. We were fortunate we had a girl (who lived) next door who would come to sit with those monster children at night. (She'd) stay all night (and) wake up and go home the next day, which was nice. I think we paid her five dollars (laughingly)

MILLER: During 1945 - 1960 if you could have added a twenty fifth hour to your day, how would you have spent that hour?

HILL: I'd still spend it all by myself. No radio, no television ... I don't know what I'd do. I'd read a book (or) write a letter. I'd spend it all by myself. No children, no husband, maybe my dog.

MILLER: Reflecting upon your life, can you recall any situations that may have led you to reconsider your decision to become a physician?

HILL: No, I'd be very happy doing what I'm doing indefinitely. I don't like these great big full-page ads in the newspaper, or little ads in great big letters, that's foreign to my time. I don't like that. I think having a partner is nice, but I can't see that having a group of four, six, eight, ten doctors is really good for a patient. That's like going to a clinic if you don't see the same doctor every time. Or if you get three doctors in one group, none of us agree on little things. You can get conflicting advice. That must be very confusing to a new mother. I kind of go for the one doctor.

MILLER: In general, what was the most fulfilling part of your life, so far?

HILL: Having a very satisfactory practice of medicine, and having a family. It worked out well both for me. If I hadn't had a family, if I hadn't had a husband, as I say I might have gone and gotten more training, (and) been another Helen Taussig1 or somebody more important. Maybe I missed that.

MILLER: What was the most frustrating work within the medical profession?

HILL: It was difficult for us at Virginia Beach to not have a hospital.2 To have to go to Norfolk (Hospital). We didn't have a hospital. We either went to DePaul, Lee Memorial, or Norfolk General. I went to all three because all three had nurseries. I had to go see new babies in all three. It was time consuming, all day, all morning. The traffic kept getting worse and worse. I got to be a good weaver to hurry up to get back to the beach. We didn't have air conditioned cars. By the time we got to the office, we were wet with sweat. It felt like it was a waste of time to spend all that time on the road. It was a pain.

MILLER: What was the most satisfying part of your medical profession?

HILL: Having a practice with people that seem to have faith in me. (I) cured a few, helped some. (I) didn't save many lives, because that didn't happen very often.

MILLER: If you could be sixteen years old again, how would you relive your life? Would you still be involved in the medical profession? Would you still have married and had as many children as you did?

HILL: I think so. There are a lot of other occupations, professions that are available to women now. They probably were, but they're not traditional. But, I don't think I would have changed anything.

MILLER: In 1963 Betty Friedan came out with a book called The Feminine Mystique, are you familiar (with the book)?

HILL: I never read it.

MILLER: Did you see a movement evolve during that time? Was there any type of response, unrest? I'd love your insight into the women's movement.

HILL: I've seen a movement develop. I think women can do anything they want to do. They may not get paid as much for doing rivets as a man would or loading garbage trucks, or these weird occupations some women want to do. I think that's bad, if they don't get paid enough for an equal job. I do think that the opportunity is available for most any reasonable job. I think my daughters and daughters across the nation have gone too far in this 'being somebody.' I mean, you can be somebody and still be nice to your husband. Give him a little bit of service. It wouldn't hurt him or anyone I mean. I think women's liberation has gone too far. I do think women should be paid for their service, whatever it is. I know secretaries aren't paid as well as a man who is a clerk. I think that's bad.

HILL: I don't know about ERA. I don't understand that amendment. Tell me do we need it?

MILLER: Personally, I think yes, but that's me. I'm growing up in a different time.

HILL: I'll tell you one thing. I'm not the least bit worried about using the same restroom, or all this other propaganda that people who are against the ERA (are pushing). That's really ridiculous. Or going to war (or) being drafted. That wouldn't hurt anybody anyway. I'm for universal draft. Draft everybody out of high school, and let them work a year or two. Everybody (would be) equal. And then we don't have to worry about that. I can't see women on the front line, which there aren't going to be anymore anyway. Are there?

I don't care about the ERA. I mean I don't understand that it's necessary. I'm glad I didn't have to vote for it, because then I would have to study the subject a little more deeply.


ENDNOTES FOR INTERVIEW WITH DR. HILL

1 Helen Brooke Taussig and Dr. Alfred Blabock developed the now famous blue-baby operation called the Blabock-Taussig procedure. This procedure for the treatment of cyanotic congenital heart disease has saved the lives of twelve thousand or more children. Dr. Taussig has also made contributions toward our understanding of the physiology of the heart, the circulatory abnormalities associated with congenital heart disease, and the study of rheumatic heart disease. She also played a vital role in raising people's awareness to the dangers of thalidomide. For further details see cited reference (A. McGebee Harvey, Adventures in Medical Research [Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1974], p. 232-239.

2 General Hospital of Virginia Beach was constructed on July 1, 1965 (Debra Taylor, General Hospital of Virginia Beach, Virginia Beach, Virginia, 14 November 1982).

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