Thank you to Evelyn Lamb, who submitted this post about her Grandmother, Marge James. Evelyn’s Scientific American blog is called Roots of Unity.
This is my grandmother Marge James, medical technologist and women’s rights activist. The picture is her engagement portrait from 1948.
I emailed her about being on this blog, and she sent me a wonderful email with some thoughts about her work and some family remembrances.
Grandma was born in 1925 and grew up poor during the depression. Her mother, by all accounts an excellent seamstress, was the primary breadwinner in her house. After her brother Wilson was killed in North Africa during World War II, she says a good deal of the $22 the family received each week from his insurance went towards sending her to college. She graduated from Akron University in 1947 with a BS in biology with distinction. In her email, she wrote, “You wondered what it was like to be biology major in the ’40s. I remember someone in our Church saw me out collecting insects for my entomology course one day and thought it was hilarious. She laughed every time she saw me for a while. As I was in college during the war, the percentage of women students was higher than usual so we did not seem so out of place. A couple of folks told mother that I should just take some secretarial courses instead.”
After graduating, she became a medical technologist and worked at a few different hospitals, eventually settling in Troy, Ohio with my grandfather. “Many professions were not considered suitable for women. Teaching, secretarial work and nursing were OK and the Med Tech also, though there were men in the profession too (the men usually ended up in charge). I can remember people saying that they would not want a woman radio or TV announcer as they had such high pitched voices. Though I did know one woman pharmacist, it was just not generally considered a job for women. A few determined women were becoming doctors and lawyers, but they had tough times getting accepted and established. Even when I went to work the general feeling was that it was OK for a married woman to have a job if she didn’t neglect her other duties. This was true even when it was the family’s only or primary income.” Grandma mostly worked part time after my mom was born in 1954.
Above: The James family in 1961. Grandma and Grandpa in the back, my aunt and mom in the front.
She says that less competent men were often promoted instead of women. “I do remember once while working in Stouder Memorial Hospital lab, the Pathologist in charge hired a young man who had very little education and tried to put him in charge of the lab and all of us who had either lots of experience or more education. The pathologist had a revolt of sorts. Nobody was happy about it and let him know. I remember telling him that the guy was trying to tell us what to do and hadn’t even taken biology 101. He knew I was not happy about it. For once he had to do a turn around on that one. Another time, I complained to the doctor who was chairman of the board (I think the doctors took turns on that) about the gross inaccuracy this same guy had done with tests while on call and the doc just passed it off as not too important. I’m sure if one of the gals in the lab had done that, she would have gotten a lot of heat about it. That really steamed me.” She ended up the head of the chemistry department at two of the hospitals where she worked and says, “Anytime there was a new test to be set up so we could all use it, it was me who set it up.”
Grandma worked with basically all body fluids in one way or another and has some interesting remembrances of those. “It was primarily blood chemistry, but also included spinal fluid, some tests with urine and even feces. I remember fecal urobilinogins which we had to do under the hood. One of our doctors came in once while I was doing one. He sniffed a bit and then said “I’m glad I use Dial, don’t you wish everybody would”. That was a Dial ad then.”
She also expanded on a story my mom used to tell me about pregnancy tests and rabbits. “When we did pregnancy tests, we would inject urine into a female rabbit’s ear (that was usually a pretty good vein), and 2 or 3 days later, we operated on the rabbit to examine her ovaries. Pregnancy had a distinct effect on the ovaries. We could use a rabbit 3 times. Operated twice and the third time we killed them. Rabbits were also good to show our very young children that had to have blood tests. Seeing the rabbits helped dry their tears. Most of us in the lab would now and then take a rabbit we had killed home to cook it. It sounds a little gross now, but we ate rabbit every now and then. Later we used frogs for pregnancy tests.” When my mom used to tell me about eating the rabbits used for medical tests, I thought it sounded so strange and otherworldly!
“All of our chemical tests were done by hand. For CO2 tests, we used mercury and periodically it had to be cleaned. We squeezed it through a cheesecloth by hand. It is a wonder we all didn’t end up with mercury poisoning.”
Grandma worked as a medical technologist for about 19 years in total. “I enjoyed my work and felt that I was very competent. Though with more financial resources and more career choices I might have gone on and perhaps done research in genetics, I never regretted my career choice.”
After my grandfather’s job sent the family to Texas, Grandma stopped working in hospitals but became very active in some community groups in their city. She served as the president of the North Texas Newcomers Club and the local chapter of the American Association of University Women. Through the AAUW she started working with the Women’s Southwest Federal Credit Union, eventually serving as treasurer of the local branch and taking Accounting 101 at a local community college so she could understand her work there better. The accounting “was all done by hand when I started. I felt there had to be a better way. I talked to your dad [a programmer] about it. He liked the challenge of getting our records etc. on the computer. We teamed up – we each bought an Osborne computer (2 floppy drives – no hard drives). I told him what we needed (he called it designing the software), and he programmed. We spent quite a few Sunday afternoons working on it. I believe it was the turning point that kept the CU in business as long as it did. It made it all look so much more professional. Of course, David and I soon had to go to an IBM PC. When we had a 10 MB hard drive I was flying high. My how quickly everything changes.”
“One more thing – on my 57th birthday, I joined some friends from the credit union to March in Oklahoma for the Equal Rights Amendment. Oklahoma was one of the states that had not ratified the amendment.”
She and my grandfather celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary last year. They still go to the gym to swim a few times a week and play bridge weekly. When my husband and I visit, we try to get a game or two in with them. We are still learning, and they go easy on us, but I can tell my grandmother is an extremely wily player. If we weren’t family, I’m sure she would be out for blood!
All my grandparents have been hugely supportive and loving to all of us grandkids and encouraged us to find our own paths in life, whatever those are.
Above: My grandparents with me and my husband at our wedding in 2010. From left: Grandma James, Grandpa James, my husband Jon, me, and Grandma Lamb.