Calmes, Selma H. MD
The written history of anesthesiology describes great men and their institutions, scientists researching aspects of anesthesia, and manufacturers of equipment or pharmaceuticals. Is it conceivable that a woman who was neither a scientist nor physician might have contributed to the development of professional anesthesia? Women physicians did specialize in anesthesia. Among the first physicians to specialize in anesthesia were Isabella Herb (1863–1943) of Chicago and Mary Botsford (1865–1939) of San Francisco. Both became presidents of early national anesthesia organizations. In 1922, Dr. Herb became the president of the American Association of Anesthetists.1 In 1931, Dr. Botsford became the president of the Associated Anesthetists of the United States and Canada.2 Both of these organizations were founded by Francis McMechan (1879–1939), one of the pioneers who transformed the practice of clinical anesthesia into a medical specialty.
Few are aware of the enormous contributions to our specialty by a woman who was neither a physician nor a scientist, Laurette van Varseveld McMechan (1878–1970). This petite, charming, and chic Parisienne import made sustained contributions to the development of professional anesthesiology, through supporting the efforts of her disabled husband Francis McMechan as he organized anesthesia societies and founded the first anesthesia journals. His achievements would have been impossible without her help. Her dedication to our specialty continued well past his death, as she continued his work for another 17 years after he died. The International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS) and its journal, Anesthesia & Analgesia, might not exist today if not for the decades of tireless work by Laurette McMechan. Tributes published after her death labeled her the “Mother of Anesthetists.”3 This article reviews Laurette McMechan’s contributions to anesthesiology, tries to place into context why her contributions were important, and why she earned various titles labeling her as the Mother of Anesthetists. It covers her unusual early life, her marriage to Francis McMechan, and their life together. It also describes her continuing the work of the IARS and its journal Current Researches in Anesthesia and Analgesia after his death.
According to a 1970 report in Anesthesia & Analgesia,3 Laurette McMechan’s early life was exotic. Here is how her background was described in this tribute:
She was a Parisienne, a descendant of Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief. Her father, a colonel in the French army, had a home on the Champs Elysèes. There, he entertained many prominent people, from the then Shah of Persia downwards. Laurette was thus born to the use of an international language and to the ways of high society.
In person, Laurette was the Parisienne of legend; petite, fair-complexioned, of features irregular but so animated as to appear handsome. She dressed with true Parisian chic, and her energy was unbounded… Her conversation can be described only by the French word spirituelle. Behind this attractive facade lay zeal, idealism, infinite kindliness, and great knowledge of the world.
An early life in such an environment could have helped her develop the personal charm and social experience that made her so notable in the world of mostly male physicians. Her social skills proved to be useful in assisting her husband as he organized various anesthesia societies and developed the first anesthesia journal. It is easy to envision her early life as being one of privilege and culture.
Unfortunately, the 1970 tribute in Anesthesia & Analgesia appears to be incorrect. A recently discovered Italian document, a “birth supplement,” clarifies her birth and parentage (Table 1, line 1). The document was filed in Rome’s civil records office on June 19, 1878. It notes birth of the child Laura Rosa Matilde Duplan on May 17, 1878, in Rome. The mother is listed as Matilde Duplan, a native of Paris who possibly lived in Rome with her own father, probably also from Paris. The mother reported the baby’s father was Lorenzo Waddell. The record suggests that Matilde Duplan was married but does not say if she was married to the father of the baby. This document provides “Recognition of a Female Child.”
Women in Italy at this time had no legal rights, and children belonged to the father. Apparently, Mr. Waddell abandoned his child, and the mother was seeking custody, within a month of birth. Because she had no legal rights, Matilde’s father likely traveled from Paris to assist (Table 1, line 2).
Laurette McMechan’s death certificate (Table 1, line 3) lists her birth date as May 15, 1878, her mother as Matilde Duplan, and her father as William van Varseveld (dates unknown). William van Varseveld was an American born in either Virginia or West Virginia. His only documented presence in the United States was in Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1900 to 1910. He was listed in Cincinnati’s city directories as a traveling salesman (Table 1, line 4). Her mother, a native of Paris, arrived in the United States from France in 1884, destined for Ohio. The passenger records were in her maiden name, Matilde Duplan. She was not accompanied by her daughter, Laurette, who would have been 6 years old (Table 1, line 5). The mother returned to France at an unknown time and reentered the United States through Ellis Island in 1907 using her married name, Van Varseveld, but immigration records state she was unmarried (Table 1, line 6). A second daughter, Margarette Lillian van Varseveld, was born to the same parents in 1896 in Ohio. Matilde lived with this second daughter and her family from at least 1930 until her death in 1939 (Table 1, lines 7, 8). The parents also had a son, Harold van Varseveld, born in Ohio in 1893 (Table 1, line 9; although his last name is misspelled, common in genealogy records, in this reference, the information on his parents matches that of the other children).
These records do not support the exotic story of her early life that was so much a part of Mrs McMechan’s uniqueness and charm, a story that made her different and special in America. For example, her father was not a French Army colonel. Her mother might have married one later, but the man Mrs McMechan listed as her father was a traveling salesman in Cincinnati. It is possible that she was never told the true story of her birth and knew William van Varseveld as her father. He may even have adopted her.
Another claim about her history was that she was a direct descendant of the sister of Dr Baron Dominique Jean Larrey (1767–1842), Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief. Larrey supported Henry Hill Hickman’s attempts at anesthesia because he advocated pain relief, in contrast to most French physicians of the time.4 However, no documentation of her relationship to Larrey could be found.
It is probable she lived her early life in Paris; it is not known when she came to the United States. Apparently, William van Varseveld left Laurette and her mother and returned to the United States, leaving them in France. Laurette was also separated from her mother for long periods of time. Her mother, Matilde, made at least 2 trips from France to Cincinnati, had 2 more children with the same father, and remained in Ohio until her death. Laurette van Varseveld’s time in Paris and who she lived with cannot be documented. No matter what actually happened, this exotic story was who Laurette van Varseveld McMechan was in the United States. She told this story to great effect over many years. It also tells us something about her as a person. Finally, she had to feel abandoned by her parents. There is evidence that her Italian father, who she may not have known about, abandoned her at birth. The people she knew as her father and mother both left her for long periods of time. Perhaps this early separation from her parents, especially the man thought to be her father (who was missing for a significant part of her childhood), led to her total dedication to another man, Francis McMechan. Perhaps this explains her need to support him completely, and her lifelong devotion to his projects.
LIFE IN CINCINNATI
Laurette van Varseveld arrived in Cincinnati about the turn of the 20th century. It was an important industrial city but was far different than beautiful Paris. Its population was about 325,900 (Table 1, line 10), petite compared to gigantic Paris at 2.7 million (Table 1, line 11). The introduction in the 1907 city directory noted that “plans were being made for a park and boulevard system,” revealing that there were few parks and wide streets. Air pollution from smoke from the city’s many factories was an issue: “The agitation for the abolishment of the smoke nuisance, admittedly one of the greatest disadvantages under which the city has labored” also resulted in new regulations and “the results are already noticeable” (Table 1, line 12). Suggestions for a city tour by the public in 1907 included The City Hospital (for indigents), Longview Asylum (one of the largest retreats for the insane in Ohio), the Work House (for the indigent poor), and the Cincinnati Crematory (Table 1, line 13). Few other cities would include such dismal sites on tours showcasing their city. What a contrast to Paris! Why did she leave Paris and come to Cincinnati?
MARRIAGE AND ANESTHESIA ORGANIZING
Laurette had an interest in theater and took classes at Cincinnati’s famous Schuster School of Elocution and Dramatic Art. There, she met Francis Hoeffer McMechan (1879–1939), a Cincinnati native, a previous newspaper man, and a third-generation physician. Francis was in medical school but kept busy directing and writing plays. He would often consult her on early versions of his play ideas, and she acted in all the plays he produced. They were so compatible and worked so well as a team that they married in 1909. Dr. McMechan’s favorite uncle, the Rev J. F. X. Hoeffer (1852–1913), a Jesuit priest, performed the marriage in Chicago (Table 1, line 14).
After their marriage, they returned to Cincinnati and lived in the home of Francis McMechan’s parents (Table 1, line 15). Both Francis McMechan and his physician father, J. C. McMechan, had their medical offices at home, a common practice at the time (Table 1, line 16). The home also held 8 boarders. One of the boarders was Laurette McMechan’s brother, then 17 years of age. Francis McMechan continued his general medical practice, emphasizing his growing interest in anesthesia.
As far as we know, Laurette had no exposure to medical practice previously. Now she lived in a house with 2 physicians and their medical office. The house was likely full of waiting patients. Because her husband “lived and breathed anesthesia,” Mrs. McMechan’s interest in anesthesia grew. After she married Dr. McMechan, she “often accompanied him to the operating room, and donning operation room clothes, helped him in the details of his work” (Table 1, line 17).
Laurette revealed much of herself in an article, “The psychology of stage clothes,” in an international theater magazine (Table 1, line 18), published under her maiden name. “In real life, women of different types have certain characteristic ways of dressing which, if properly understood, usually prove to be the keynotes of their respective personalities.” Actresses, she said, must understand the personality of their character and then be sure the gown was designed to “emphasize the salient and distinctive personality of the woman she intends to portray.” Mrs. McMechan probably followed this philosophy as she dealt with the men of anesthesia. Indeed, in the years after her husband’s death, she likely comported herself as a business professional when she served as assistant executive director of the IARS and assistant editor of its journal.
She was always stylishly attired, often appearing with pearls, hat, gloves, and a fur piece. Her attractiveness was often commented on. Physically, she was a tiny person, about 4 feet 8 or 9 inches tall. However, she was a dynamo. One person remembered her as a “Grand Dame of the Old School. Her regal bearing belied her small stature. When she talked with you, you realized she seemed to be at least a foot taller than her actual height” (Table 1, line 19).
About 1911, a mere 18 months after their wedding, Francis McMechan developed a devastating form of arthritis. He rapidly became incapacitated and soon gave up his medical practice. He became dependent on his wife for his physical needs, such as dressing and feeding himself. He initially ambulated with crutches, but was eventually confined to a wheelchair. This illness occurred as the organizations of anesthesia were beginning in the United States. Francis McMechan catalyzed this process despite his debilitating health problems. In 1912, the year he had to give up medical practice completely, the first meeting of the American Association of Anesthetists (AAA), the first national anesthesia organization, was held. Supported by his crutches, McMechan presented a paper, “The Medical-Legal Status of Anesthesia.” James Gwathmey (1862–1944) of New York City served as the first AAA president until he left for overseas when the United States entered World War I. McMechan replaced Gwathmey as president of the AAA. This was his first leadership position in an anesthesia organization.4
Francis McMechan’s vigorous leadership and dedication to organizing those interested in anesthesia were immediately evident. His intent was to strengthen the new specialty’s position, especially in terms of the competition from nurse anesthetists. Under his energetic leadership, the AAA held annual meetings. He also helped develop regional organizations of anesthesiologists, such as the Interstate Association of Anesthetists. The meetings often had a theatrical flair, with a well-balanced roster of speakers and presentation of various awards.
Francis McMechan believed that a journal dedicated to anesthesia was much needed. He felt that even with his disability, this was a contribution he could make to the specialty. The journal first took form as the Quarterly Supplement of Anesthesia and Analgesia, initially published as a section of the American Journal of Surgery (which had a cooperative publisher). Francis McMechan was the supplement’s editor.
Because Francis McMechan was so severely disabled, Laurette McMechan was involved in the journal production from the beginning. She was obviously a talented editor and writer and had the energy to do the work. Francis and Laurette also created an important (and nearly forgotten) contribution, the “Quarterly Index of the Current Literature of Anesthesia and Analgesia.” This publication summarized all published articles related to anesthesia in the last quarter, a useful effort in the “pre-Google” era that allowed others to search for new articles on anesthesia. Francis McMechan devised his own index system, and his wife did much of the implementation. To compile the index, Laurette had to review 75 journals from other organizations, which she received on an exchange basis. Receiving 75 journals also meant her sending out 75 copies of Current Researches in return (Table 1, line 20). Laurette checked each journal for articles related to anesthesia, prepared a list of these for each quarterly index, and wrote summaries of important articles. She continued using, and even improving, his index system after his death.
Francis McMechan corresponded with anyone interested in anesthesia, suggesting how to get training, and connecting the recipients with what they needed, such as places to train and possible positions. The voluminous correspondence became increasingly difficult to manage as his disability increased. Eventually, his hand and arm joints fused, requiring Laurette McMechan to type all of his correspondence. A rubber stamp was used for his signature.
By 1915, the McMechans’ only income was from editing the Quarterly Supplement, resulting in a serious financial hardship. It was clear he could never practice medicine again. His parents could not help; they were elderly and died in 1916 and 1917 (Table 1, line 21). Laurette’s father was probably deceased by 1911, and her mother had no way to earn a living. Help arrived from an unusual source. To escape Cincinnati’s summer heat, the McMechan family often summered in the small resort town of Avon Lake, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie. Avon Lake was a small town, with a population in 1920 of only 904. (Table 1, line 22). They rented rooms from a retired Great Lakes ship captain, William Joel Curtis (1849-?) and his wife. The McMechans were taken in as year-round “renters” (although they were unable to pay the full rent) by the Curtis family, and the 2 families came together. The Curtises caught the McMechans’ enthusiasm and joined in the effort to organize anesthesia and publish Current Researches. Laurette and Mrs. Curtis, a college graduate and former teacher, became close friends and did everything together, while Francis McMechan worked at the front parlor table (Fig. 1). Evenings were quiet social times playing cards, listening to records, and talking. McMechan stated this time was one of the highlights of his life and that the Curtises were more responsible than anyone for his opportunity to do his work for anesthesia.4
In 1922, the publisher of the American Journal of Surgery died. The publisher financially supported the Quarterly Supplement, and it ended with his death. Francis McMechan saw an increasing number of papers on anesthesia, likely in response to the increasing number of physicians committed to the specialty. He decided to create a journal entirely dedicated to the specialty, Current Researches in Anesthesia and Analgesia, now known simply as Anesthesia & Analgesia. In 1925, Francis McMechan was listed as the sole Editor and Executive Secretary of the sponsoring organization, the National Anesthesia Research Society, now known as the IARS. This new position improved the McMechans’ financial situation. By the time of his death, he was earning $600/month for his editorial work (unfortunately, he had to pay business expenses from that; Table 1, line 23). Laurette McMechan supported him behind the scenes, managing, editing, and retyping manuscripts as well as handling the logistical aspects of publishing and mailing the journal.
The 1920s were called “The Travel Years” by Dr. McMechan (Fig. 2). They were away from Avon Lake about 3 months a year. Five trips annually were made to the regional societies’ meetings: the Midwestern Association of Anesthetists, the Canadian Society of Anesthetists, the Pacific Coast Association of Anesthetists, the Southern Association of Anesthetists, and the Eastern Society of Anesthetists. McMechan was involved in planning each meeting. His involvement extended to the meetings themselves, as he gave talks, moderated sessions, and helped the organizations’ leaders with problems. The McMechans orchestrated the meetings with style, balancing speakers and topics in an attractive setting, to ensure that the meetings were enjoyable for participants. He and his wife were always the focal point of the activities.
During this time, Laurette McMechan met the men who would lead anesthesia to its position as a recognized specialty. Ever-present at important anesthesia meetings, so she could assist her husband, she soon developed warm friendships with future leaders of anesthesia from all over the world. Eventually, she acquired several endearing titles (in order of publication) such as the “Mother Laurette,”4 the “Mother of Anesthetists,”3 and “Beloved Mother of World Anesthesiology.”5 Noted British anesthetist Sir Robert Macintosh (1897–1987), when speaking at an IARS meeting, blurted out a variant when introduced to the new IARS secretary: “Oh! Are you la mère (mother) Laurette?” (Table 1, line 19). Although Laurette McMechan and Macintosh had never met, her title was known to him in England. She in turn considered the anesthetists “her boys,” even the elderly men. Without children of her own, these friends became her family, in addition to her husband.
Initially, the “international” aspect of the IARS referred to Canada. However, as McMechan’s organizing efforts expanded globally, foreign travel was required. In 1926, 17 members of the AAA and their wives attended the British Medical Association meeting in Nottingham, England. They subsequently traveled to the Royal Society of Medicine of London’s Section of Anaesthetics meeting and concluded the trip at the Scottish Society of Anaesthetists meetings in Glasgow and Edinburgh. This was the first meeting of American and European physician anesthetists. In 1928, the McMechans were at the Medical Congress in Hamburg, with stops in a number of other countries to meet with anesthetists. In 1929, they traveled to Cuba. Later that year, they traveled to Australia and New Zealand.4(p16)
The logistics of travel for the McMechans had to be very difficult. At the time, the needs of disabled people were completely ignored. Getting this stiff little man and his wheelchair on board a ship and managing the tight hallways and narrow doors of ships and trains, among other situations, had to be an unbelievable challenge for Mrs. McMechan. She handled this with grace, skill, and kindness to all involved, characteristics that impressed those who saw her in this situation.4 Dr. McMechan was fortunate to have Laurette’s devotion; it would have been impossible for him to travel otherwise.
The 1929 trip to Australia and New Zealand was his last. His health declined precipitously on his return home, and he spent the next 2 years in bed. The work of the IARS and the journal was carried on by his wife. His salary as Editor of Current Researches in Anesthesia and Analgesia improved their financial situation and in 1929,4(p16) the McMechans moved from Avon Lake to a residence hotel, the Westlake Hotel, in nearby Rocky Ridge, Ohio (Table 1, line 24; Fig. 3). This luxury hotel provided all services and was beautiful and prestigious. Although Mrs. McMechan still physically cared for her husband, she was now relieved of housekeeping, laundry, and cooking. However, she continued carrying on most of the journal’s work. Their hotel space served as the IARS office.
After brief improvements in his health, Dr. McMechan attended a few meetings but could not attend the Congress of Anesthetists in Chicago in 1937, where he and his wife were to receive a trophy honoring their work for anesthesia. Amazingly, he rallied enough later to be able to plan and attend a meeting in St. Louis on May 11, 1939. Then he returned to his bed. Dr. Francis McMechan died June 29, 1939. He and Laurette had spent nearly his entire professional life to elevate the specialty of anesthesia. He succeeded, and his work created the foundations for the modern profession of anesthesiology. However, he could not have accomplished anything without her untiring assistance.
LIFE AFTER DR. McMECHAN’S DEATH
Three days after Frank McMechan’s death, the Board of Governors of the IARS met and elected his wife to the position of Assistant Eexecutive Secretary–Editor. Dr. Emanuel Klaus (1875–1945), a Cleveland anesthetist and charter member of the IARS, was elected as Acting Executive Secretary–Editor. Mrs. McMechan was to continue as assistant executive secretary–editor, and her salary was to be her husband’s salary of $600 per month. The accounts were also to be audited (Table 1, line 23). The audit revealed that the stenographer was “M. McMahon” (Table 1, line 25), her sister Margarette, now married (Table 1, line 26).
At the Board meeting of March 17, 1940, Mrs. McMechan’s stress in this new position was evident. She asked to be relieved of any association with the upcoming Congress saying, “We can’t do it. It is impossible. We haven’t the time.” She did offer to print and send around the preliminary program (Table 1, line 27). It is likely she was still mourning for her husband and perhaps was also overwhelmed by her new position.
More than a year later, her salary was discussed again at a Board of Governors meeting. Dr. Klaus explained, “The salary seems large when you look at the figure. She is getting $600 a month. Out of that $600 the (office) rent is being paid, and telephone bills, and then whatever traveling expenses she incurs in going to Boston (she is preparing for a Congress in Syracuse). That comes out of her salary, out of the $600. She also pays the Editor out of her salary.” It was pointed out that she also often made trips to get personal contact with the journal’s advertisers. Another Board member asked if it was good business practice to include the expenses of the organization in Mrs. McMechan’s salary. The board agreed to separate these from her salary, which then dropped to $300/month (Table 1, Line 28). Her sister continued as bookkeeper and stenographer; another stenographer was also employed part time. The 3 women carried nearly all the work of the organization and the journal, with nonanesthesiologist Dr. Howard Dittrick (appointed Directing Editor in January 1940)6 editing papers alongside Mrs. McMechan.
It is clear that Laurette ran the editorial office during this time. A 1954 letter from the part-time stenographer reports, “Mrs. McMechan and I have again had a misunderstanding and I find it will be impossible for me to continue to work in the Office … when you take into consideration the number of girls who have left and some without notice, I am sure you can understand the fault is not all mine” (Table 1, line 29). This assistant did, however, stay on for several more years.
Meanwhile, “…the Board had become an old man’s retirement sanctuary. There had been some people on it who were long past their time of contribution and who had refused to leave voluntarily…” (Table 1, line 30). The journal Anesthesiology began publication in July 1940 and was tough competition for Current Researches in Anesthesia and Analgesia. The quality of the IARS journal fell. Editor Dittrick, a nonanesthesiologist, did not have the interest or contacts to attract papers. By the 1950s, it had the earned derogatory and vaguely racist moniker the “Yellow Peril.” (The journal’s cover was a bright yellow so it could easily be identified by color-blind individuals.) When Harry Seldon volunteered to be editor in 1954, he considered the journal of “wastebasket caliber” (Table 1, line 31). Mrs. McMechan was aware of the dismal quality of the journal (Table 1, line 32), but as a nonphysician, there was little she could do to solicit better papers from physician investigators.
In 1956, Laurette McMechan told the Board that she was leaving, a move she called “severance” (meaning leaving the organization, not financial compensation for leaving). Their response was total surprise, even though she was then 78 years old. One board member said, “I don’t quite get this about your severance.” Another said, “Not your severance from the Society? Don’t get any ideas like that in your head.” Someone else stated, “That is the farthest thing from our minds.” Mrs. McMechan stated, “I am not going to live at the Westlake” (Table 1, line 33; it had deteriorated and was not the beautiful luxurious hotel it had been; Table 1, line 24).
When asked where she would go, she responded “I haven’t made any plans whatsoever … I would stay in another climate; that is my idea.” A board member asked, “Why don’t you just carry on as you are? The Board has no thought whatever of severing us from you. We need you.” Mrs. McMechan countered that her bronchitis was a problem and that she needed a warmer climate, like Phoenix, but knew no one there. Her only remaining family, her sister and the sister’s children, had moved to Los Angeles sometime before 1956 (Table 1, line 34). She finally firmly announced that she expected to close her office and move to a warmer climate at end of the year. The board committed to continuing her salary, even after retirement (Table 1, line 35).
The 1956 Congress of Anesthetists, held in Miami Beach, Florida, honored her (Fig. 4). An observer noted, “At the meeting in Florida, she was a very proper, spirited, gracious, cordial, interested, command-type lady” (Table 1, line 36), despite her age. She was appointed Honorary Assistant Editor to recognize her many contributions to the IARS and its journal. After the Phoenix meeting in 1957, she moved to Los Angeles. A new business office for the society opened in Cleveland, and the editorial office moved to Rochester, Minnesota.
Little is known about her life in Los Angeles. She moved to that huge city at the age of 79, with only her sister and the sister’s family nearby. No one needed her anymore, few knew who she was, or that she had been the “grande dame” of a new medical specialty. It is possible that financial problems loomed also. Her income is not known but was probably just the $300 per month she had earned in her last position. She lived in 3 different apartments in Los Angeles and was not listed in the phone book from 1961 to 1965, suggesting she might not have had a phone. She was well enough to travel to Australia in 1962, at the age of 85, and insisted on seeing the sights of Sydney, on foot and alone.3 She moved to a “convalescent hospital” at some point.
The board felt responsible for her welfare and kept in touch. She attended the 1967 Congress of Anesthetists in Bal Harbour, Florida (Table 1, line 37; Fig. 5). They sent flowers on her 90th birthday and considered celebrating her 90th birthday at the next meeting (Table 1, line 38) but did not. Early the next year, 1968, the annual Congress was in San Francisco, and the Executive Secretary was sent to visit Mrs. McMechan in Los Angeles and report back on her physical condition and financial situation (Table 1, line 39). He reported she was in the convalescent hospital, in good spirits and mentally alert, and was disappointed to not be able to attend the meeting. She expressed concern about the cost of the convalescent center while also paying for her apartment. A few days later, she returned home to her apartment with a day nurse (Table 1, line 40). No additional financial support was recorded for her.
Laurette McMechan died May 22, 1970, at the age of 92 in the Santa Monica Convalescent Center (Table 1, line 3). She was buried in the Lakewood Cemetery, Rocky River, Ohio, next to her husband, Dr. Francis Hoeffer McMechan. Several board members served as pallbearers, as she requested. The IARS also paid for her funeral (Table 1, line 41). Only 2 brief tributes appeared in the journal to which she had dedicated her life.3,5
Laurette McMechan’s contributions were in 3 areas: the social sphere she fostered that helped anesthesia organizations coalesce, the assistance she provided her disabled husband, and 17 years of work for the IARS and the journal after her husband’s death.
“Social” contributions might not be considered significant in a science-based medical specialty, but they were in this case. She became involved early in the history of anesthesia, just as it was becoming a specialty, with a long fight for acceptance ahead. It was important that those few physicians interested in this new specialty could identify with groups of others like them, providing cohesiveness and strength in numbers. At ease when meeting new people, worldly, charming, and attractive, Laurette McMechan was a great asset helping newcomers fit into organized anesthesia. She and her husband traveled around the United States, Canada, and eventually the world, getting physicians interested in anesthesia and committing to the specialty. Social functions were especially important. She orchestrated the food, seating, and so on, while her husband gave speeches and made comments on papers. She always arranged a ladies’ luncheon and often a tour at the meetings, which included the anesthetists’ wives. Such events made the wives less resistant to their husbands attending meetings far from home.
She was a bit of a grande dame. She was known to orchestrate her appearances at events, appearing late so she could make a grand entrance, as if she were still an actress on stage, as she had been back in Cincinnati when the McMechans first met. Such an event was described by a later secretary: “…I went to her hotel room to escort her to … our black tie dinner … to be at 7:00 PM. I was at her room at ten minutes to seven. She was ready … we chatted. When seven o’clock came, I was getting nervous. I believed … you [should] arrive on time. I finally asked if she was ready to leave. She said … ‘My dear! You do not go to a cocktail party on railroad time!’ And then we proceeded to make a grand entrance!!” (Table 1, line 19) Despite her diva-like antics, everyone seemed to love her.
The period of assisting her disabled husband in his work must have been very difficult. All of his joints, except his jaw, were fused by arthritis. If she had not made the commitment to do this organizational work in addition to the mammoth task of physically caring for her husband, the early anesthesia organizations and journals would not have succeeded. After Dr. McMechan’s death, her work kept the IARS and its journal going despite vigorous competition from the American Society of Anesthesiologists and its journal, Anesthesiology. The IARS and Anesthesia & Analgesia might not exist today if not for Laurette McMechan’s work after her husband’s death.
A former member of the Board of Governors summarized her contributions: “She was formidable. She kept the Society going in the 1930s. After WWII she was the glue that kept the organization intact while the Board was being repopulated with working Trustees. She and Rolland Whitacre apparently were the forces that rehabilitated the Society.” The Board clearly recognized her contributions and their debt to her. “The Board always had an interest in her well-being and paid her a modest monthly living allowance as part of an agreement when she retired” (Table 1, line 36).
What about her titles? Mother Laurette was the earliest published reference to her maternal role in organized anesthesia, appearing in 1939.4(p13) Variations, published in 1970 in short obituaries, were the “Beloved Mother of World Anesthesiology”5 and the “Mother of Anesthetists.”3 In those early days of getting anesthesia organized, the AAA, the National Anesthesia Research Society, and the IARS were the larger part of organized anesthesia nationally and internationally. The first 3 organizations were all developed and led by the McMechans. Laurette was always by Frank’s side, facilitating his mobility, contributing to his writing and editing, both by commenting and typing, helping him socially as hostess, and stimulating friendships and contacts through his many letters. She functioned as a mother, and the men and organizations of anesthesia then were her boys. Being one of her boys was proudly acknowledged by Drs. Daly and Kaye in their tribute: “She carries with her to the shades the esteem, as well as the affection, of her boys in many countries. Amongst those ‘boys,’ the present writers are proud to have been numbered.”3
The world community of anesthesiologists became the successful, appreciative family that Laurette never experienced as a child, growing up with long separations from both parents. She lived an extraordinary life. We owe a debt of gratitude to Laurette McMechan, Beloved Mother of Anesthesiology, a woman who was neither a scientist nor a physician, but nevertheless made extraordinary contributions to the development of our profession.
Name: Selma H. Calmes, MD.
Contribution: This author designed and conducted the study, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript.
Attestation: Selma H. Calmes approved the final manuscript.
This manuscript was handled by: Steven L. Shafer, MD.
The author gratefully acknowledges help from the following:
The staff of the Wood Library-Museum (WLM) organized the International Anesthesia Research Society’s archives, found useful research material, and identified unknown persons in photos: WLM Librarian-Manager Karen Bieterman MLIS, WLM Archivist Felicia Reilly MALS, WLM Assistant Librarian Teresa Jimenez MSLIS, WLM Museum Registrar Judith Robins MA and WLM Library Assistant Margaret Jenkins.
WLM Honorary Curator George S. Bause, MD, answered multiple questions about Francis and Laurette McMechan, provided 2 references that were difficult to find, and discussed important aspects of this article.
Genealogist Mara Fein, PhD, CG(SM), researched the difficult genealogy questions, assisted by Melanie Holtz, CG(SM). They both worked on translation of the Italian document. E