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Women's History Month: Remembering Emma Louise Bellows

Emma Louise Bellows was well-known doctor and historian in Southampton.

Emma Louise Bellows was born in Good Ground in 1896, the second daughter of Henrietta Burgemeister and Austin Alonzo “Lon” Bellows.  Her father was a bayman who lived part of the year with his family in a shack on the beach, where he fished for cod, and the other half on the mainland, where he was an oysterman.  Her mother immigrated to the US in 1870 and became a school teacher in New York City.  Her parents met while Henrietta was vacationing in Good Ground.  

Prior to her birth, her parents and sister moved to the mainland full time and, to make ends meet, her mother started taking in boarders.  The Bellows House, a large three-story structure, was considered to be a small boarding house since it consisted of 14 bedrooms.  

Boarding houses were plentiful in Hampton Bays.  Boarders would arrive from the city via train to enjoy the sea. Lon piloted a sailboat from the dock at Bellows House each morning to bring beach goers to the ocean bathing pavilion, since there was no bridge then.  When she was old enough, Emma worked in the boarding house for three dollars a week, washing dishes, preparing food and, often, decapitating and cleaning chickens. 

Emma attended the two-room elementary school house on Bay Avenue in Springville.  Prior to 1909, there was no high school in Good Ground, so children wanting to attend had to go to either Riverhead or Southampton.  Few children pursued their education and those that did were considered “stuck up.”  

When Emma decided to attend high school, she gave up her wages in exchange for the $50 annual train fare that would be necessary.  Each day, Emma would walk 1 1/2 miles to the train station in Good Ground, then walk another 1/2 mile to the school once in Southampton

As a young teen, Emma, a life long member of the Methodist Church, met a visiting missionary couple who had lived in China. It was the experiences of the Tafts that sparked a desire to become a doctor. Becoming a doctor was not an easy pursuit for a young woman and young Emma was hesitant to tell her mom of her intentions.

When she finally spoke her mother about her plan, her mother agreed to finance her education for a year.  Emma planned to drop out and work, then return to finish her education as finances permitted.  

There were approximately 19 colleges in the United States that would accept a woman in the early 1900s, four of them were in the New York area and two of these required previous college study, which Emma did not have, nor could she afford. The New York Medical College and Hospital for Women, chartered in 1863, only required courses which she had already taken, so this is where she went.  

While attending college, she lived with her sister Marion and her family in New Jersey and daily commuting became a part of her life again. She would take a train to Jersey City, a ferry to New York, then the El to the college.  School was in session six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m..  This was a small institution of approximately 40 students, eight of which were Emma’s classmates. Fortunately, her parents and sister were able to fund her education without interruption.  

After graduation in 1918  she began her internship at the Norwegian Hospital, now the Lutheran Medical Center, in Brooklyn.  There she treated many victims of the deadly Spanish Influenza pandemic of the time. Between 50 and 100 million died, making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history.  

In her book, Memoirs of a Town & Country Doctor,  Dr. Bellows relates that she was one of the many called to the tragic scene of the worst subway disaster in New York’s history.  In November of 1918, 102 people died when an under-trained motorman lost control of his subway car at Malbone Street.   Due to the tragedy, this street was later renamed Empire Boulevard.  

For the next two decades, Dr. Bellows primarily practiced in obstetrics, delivering approximately sixty babies a year, typically at home.  After taking post-graduate courses in pediatrics, she assisted in many tonsillectomies, performed on the kitchen table for $75 in advance.  Emma would administer the ether while a surgeon removed the tonsils and adenoids.

During World War II, Emma was living in Tuckahoe, but rationing of gasoline made it difficult for her to commute to her patients in the city.  She decided to return to Southampton to practice.  There were four doctors in Southampton at the time.

One encouraged her to start a practice for babies and children, although he didn’t believe it would be profitable enough to live on.  Initially, the idea of a woman doctor was not a popular one and she did not immediately apply for hospital privileges, since they were sure to be denied. One day a week she’d return to the city to care for patients there.  

After six months she gave up her practice in the city and practiced full-time in Southampton at her office on David White's Lane and Hampton Road in Southampton..  Later she took on Dr. Mary Johnson as her assistant.  For nine years she was the chief of obstetrics in Southampton Hospital, until she was replaced by a board certified doctor, Dr. Hugh Halsey.  In the 1960’s she and “Dr. Mary” shared the job of Medical Examiner, or Coroner as it was then known.  

While the pay was poor, $5,000 for on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it enabled Emma to have a salaried position and to pay into Social Security since doctors, as well as lawyers and dentists were not allowed to participate otherwise.

Medical Examiners were charged with investigating all accidental deaths.  As it turns out, this was the practice of her profession that Dr. Bellows liked best.  

Dr. Bellows was an avid traveler for most of her life.  She traveled in the United States and visited many interesting places such as Africa, the Antarctic, Iceland and the Galapagos Islands, as well as Australia and the South Pacific.  

After her retirement she wrote a booklet on the history of Hampton Bays to benefit the Methodist Church.  This led to the writing of Memoirs of a Town & Country Doctor, as well as a weekly news column in the Hampton Bays Compass.  

In 1971, a testimonial dinner was held at the Canoe Place Inn honoring Dr. Bellow’s 50 years of service.  She was touched to receive a clam rake with gilded tines, since she knew she was always “a clam-digger at heart.”

Our hamlet was saddened when Dr. Bellows died in 1990.  She was greatly loved, as a doctor and historian, and very missed.  She is buried here in Good Ground Cemetery, up behind the Methodist Church, not far from where her life and story began.

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