Anabel Shawkey McConnell grew up the daughter of a doctor and was raised by parents who instilled in her the belief that a woman could do — and should do — anything she wanted to do.
Anabel ended up becoming a doctor herself, but not because it was expected of her. In fact, her own father wrote in a letter that he wished Anabel had taken “an easier route.”
What makes Anabel’s career choice so unusual is that she made the decision to become a doctor in an era when women didn’t go to medical school. Born in 1913, Anabel turned 100 last month.
Anabel’s youngest daughter, Kay Mc-Connell White, says her grandmother — Anabel’s mother — was probably what would be called a “women’s libber” today.
“I think maybe that’s part of why Mother has no fear. She grew up believing a woman can do whatever a woman wants to do and know what you really want to do and do it. Mother always instilled in us that a good education will take you a long way with whatever you want to do,” Kay said.
Anabel graduated from high school in Charleston, WVa., attended Marshall College, graduated from West Virginia University with bachelor of science and arts degrees and then received her doctor of medicine degree from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.
Kay says while in medical school, Anabel and her roommate were oddities.
“A few professors didn’t yet accept the idea of women in medical school since they ‘wouldn’t keep at it’ after they ‘caught’ a husband. Some of the funniest stories are about unmentionable parts and things the girls found in their lab coat pockets,” said Kay.
Anabel met her future husband, Scott County native, Fred McConnell, while in medical school. The couple decided to wait until Fred finished medical school before they got married.
Shortly after Fred and Anabel married in 1939, Fred joined the Army. When he completed basic training, he was sent to Australia and New Guinea for the duration of World War II.
During the war years, Anabel moved to Gate City and became the first female doctor in Scott County. She took over her father-in-law’s general practice after he died from appendicitis. Anabel lived with her mother-in-law in the house next to the medical office, which was located on the main street of Gate City.
Kay says her mother quickly learned a lot about Southwest Virginia as she made home visits to patients who lived up and down the hills and valleys.
“The closest hospital was in Kingsport. Many farmers would pay for their medical care with produce or barter items. Health insurance was not an issue back then — you were treated and you paid for what you could,” said Kay. “Delivering babies was always a challenge. Often there was not running water, but there were lots of outhouses! Sometimes a road would only go so far and [Mother] would hike or ride a horse to get to the expectant mother. Many a family story involved a harried husband who realized that a woman really could doctor his family. It wasn’t long before she was eagerly called ‘Dr. Anabel’ by even the most reticent in the crowd.”
Kay still has a copy of a letter, dated 1942, sent to her father from what was then Holston Valley Community Hospital.
“Instead of sending this letter to Mother , they sent it to Daddy, just saying he had been appointed an associate membership on the medical staff. Evidently, they did it every year at Holston Valley. But it is the last paragraph that means so much to me. It says, ‘I wish I could convey, for your peace of mind during the ups and downs of wartime, how highly a present Dr. McConnell [Anabel] is esteemed by everyone and how courageously and usefully she is carrying on,’” Kay said.
Following the war, the McConnells moved to Detroit for a few years while Dr. Fred took obstetrics and gynecology training. Kay jokes that her father must have delivered more than half the people who live in Scott County.
When the family returned to the area from Detroit, Anabel worked as assistant medical director at Holston Defense.
“She often laughed about the men refusing to allow a woman doctor to examine them and how they had to come back, ‘hat in hand,’ to her for the examination before they could go to work,” Kay said.
Kay said it was while traveling down Netherland Inn Road to Holston Defense that eventually led her parents to purchase the Rotherwood property on which they built their own home. Anabel designed the house, using the foundations of the original Rotherwood Mansion, which had burned in the Civil War years.
In the mid-1950s, Kay said her mother decided to stop practicing medicine and be a stay-at-home mom. And although Anabel enjoyed needlepoint and became an excellent baker, this stay-at-home mom was no June Cleaver.
Kay says her mother took an interest in environmental and ecological issues. She gardened, bird watched and encouraged her own children to get to know the outdoors. For several years she served on the board of the Appalachian Girl Scouts. Anabel continued her own education, attending extension classes at East Tennessee State University. She also took ski lessons at Beech Mountain.
Anabel spent a lot of time volunteering in her children’s schools and helping committees with public health education.
“I remember the long lines at Jackson School when everyone was to get a polio shot. What a bummer to have your mom be the one at the end of that long line giving the shots,” said Kay.
And while all the other moms wore designer dresses and sandals, Kay says her mother, who was ahead of her time and didn’t care what other people thought, wore SAS Oxford shoes and blue jeans.
“She mortified her teenage daughters! She drove an old canvas top Army Jeep long before this was cool. We would slink down in the seats on the days she delivered us to high school,” Kay said.
Kay still has a copy of a newspaper clipping where her mother was interviewed about how to talk to your children about — of all things — puberty. Although there is no date on the article, Kay laughs when she says it doesn’t matter when the story was written because, back then, you just didn’t talk about things like that.
Kay admits growing up with both a mother and father who were doctors made life interesting. She remembers fondly the dinner table conversations that regularly took place at her house.
“Discussions generally covered game hunting, vegetable gardening, husbandry, political events and various medical challenges of the day that had come to Dad’s office or that he thought we needed to learn about,” said Kay. “Then the phone always seemed to ring with medical calls, and we would eat right through them.”
Kay says she wasn’t really aware that what her family discussed at the dinner table wasn’t the norm. It took a young man named, Andy, who eventually became Kay’s husband to point this out to her.
“He still blushes when he recounts the first time he heard Dad tell a patient just what to do with some part of her anatomy that was sore and swollen and how to bind it up,” she said. “[Andy] couldn’t believe no one else was choking up at the very thought of such descriptive language at the dinner table!”
Anabel celebrated her 100th birthday last month with family and friends at Appalachian Christian Village in Johnson City, where she now resides.
In addition to Kay, she has two other daughters — Mary Anabel and Fredricka — none of whom chose a career in medicine. She also has seven grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. Dr. Fred died in 2003 at the age of 88.
Kay says her mother was able to live on her own until she was in her 90s.
“But then one day she said, ‘My ‘remember-er’ just doesn’t work like it did.’ She had gotten so she would tell me something more than once. She started having some trouble walking. Now she’s just getting more and more vacant. She seems to understand everything going on around her, but she can’t speak. Sometimes I look at her and I know exactly what she’s thinking, but she can’t get it out so she just sits there,” Kay said.
Kay says her mother never allowed her daughters to believe her own accomplishments were unusual.
“In an article from the Times-News in 1978, she described herself as ‘a loner who could entertain herself.’ I suspect much of that was a sense of being a bit different from the June Cleaver housewife,” she said.
While Kay was in college, she says she and her mother had a conversation about why Anabel had never returned to medicine after she stopped practicing in the 1950s.
“She said she would have had to go back to school again and times had changed so dramatically from the 1960s to the 1970s. There was so much she would’ve had to pick back up on. But I came away from that conversation with the feeling that Mother was fulfilled and doing just fine,” Kay said.