Not “Just Another Doll”: Two Orchids for Miss Stafford

Throughout March, we will be celebrating Women's History Month with photos in the Flickr Commons and a series of blog posts about women from the Archives' collections.

Jane Stafford (1899-1991), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-0885]. The stylish woman with bright eyes and an eager smile appears almost ethereally exuberant. By January 1937, when she posed in a flowered hat and sporting two orchids, Jane Stafford (1899-1991) was earning wide respect as a medical reporter, as a "typewritten bridge between the M.D. and the ultimate consumer." An earlier photograph, taken when she first joined the Science Service staff, sent a different message. That image may explain why one potential employer initially pegged her as "just another doll" - until she quickly, cleverly, and accurately fulfilled a test assignment.

Stafford had been born into a life of privilege (her father was a successful Chicago attorney) but she built a professional reputation with intelligence and hard work. At Smith College, she majored in chemistry and, after graduating in 1920, worked briefly as a hospital technician. Laboratory life offered first-hand glimpses of clinical medicine. Then, on the staff of the American Medical Association's popular magazine Hygeia, Stafford learned how to write for popular audiences and also acquired her lifelong love of writing.

Jane Stafford (1899-1991), Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2009-0886]. When Stafford and her widowed mother moved to Baltimore (where her brother Edward was beginning medical training), she scoured the area for jobs. Fortunately, Science Service's medical editor had just quit. Stafford's chemistry degree, hospital experience, and intelligence outweighed any unfamiliarity with news deadlines. From 1928 until leaving in 1956 to work at the National Institutes of Health, she explored all aspects of medicine, from tuberculosis to toothaches. In the 1940s, she wrote about doctors on the battlefield, nutrition on the home front, and the "war on polio." As she explained in 1935, Science Service had few "taboo" subjects: they discussed venereal disease, pregnancy, "and all the glands and hormones." Although the organization's director "did not like the word 'intestine' and generally we avoid [the word] urine by calling it kidney secretion or excretion," Stafford assured former Hygeia colleague Mildred Whitcomb that the topics were always chosen by "scientific importance or news value."

Life for a female journalist was not all work, of course. Covering a medical meeting might include dinner with other science journalists or sampling local entertainment. After attending a bacteriology conference in New York City in January 1936, Stafford wrote Whitcomb that she had seen "three good plays": Dead End, Porgy and Bess, and Boy Meets Girl. That summer, Stafford and her mother vacationed in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware ("Nearby, quiet ocean resort, very charming, nice people, no crowds, cool and not too expensive. Had a pleasant time, swimming, bridge, dancing, reading, knitting and sunning. Came back with much suntan, and promptly had to write a story on that subject for Today Magazine."). 

Visible on Stafford's desk at left is a copy of A Textbook of Surgery for Nurses by Edward S. Staffo

And the following month, Stafford confessed to Whitcomb that she had succumbed to the latest fad. "I am practically in retirement, socially, while reading Gone with the Wind–which I had firmly intended not to read. Entertaining book, but I still feel it is rather a waste of time to be reading it at all, though I don't know that I would do anything more profitable with the evenings it has taken."

As Stafford approached middle age, she retained her willowy figure and social skills. In 1938, Whitcomb wrote that a mutual acquaintance ("Mr. B") had seen Stafford at a meeting in Kansas City and reported that "you resembled a 'beautiful wild flower.' Your conversation, he said, was sophisticated but your dress belied it."

That combination of intelligence and style carried into the workplace. Even when Stafford was photographed in her office piled with textbooks, surrounded by the tools of her trade - telephone, typewriter, and advance proofs of medical articles - she wore a strand of pearls.

Related Resources

Related Collections

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.