Born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1879, Caroline McGill devoted her life to the people of Montana, her adopted state. In her work as a physician she earned the love and respect of the people of Butte, but her role in the creation of the Museum of the Rockies is her enduring legacy to all Montanans.
McGill’s family moved to Missouri when she was five, and at the age of seventeen she acquired a teaching certificate so she could support herself and complete high school. She achieved that goal in 1901 and continued her education at the University of Missouri. By 1908 she had a B.A. in science, an M.A. in zoology, and a Ph.D. in anatomy and physiology, thereby becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate from that school. She taught at her alma mater until 1911, and former students later “aver[ed] that she was the finest medical school instructor” they had had.
Although the University of Missouri offered McGill a full professorship, she decided to shift career paths and accepted a position as pathologist at Murray Hospital in Butte. In a letter to a family member, she explained her decision to move to Montana: “I’ll tell you right now I am making the biggest fool mistake to go . . . but I’m going.” “Feels sort of funny to stand off and serenely watch myself commit suicide, [but] I’ll just have to let her rip.”
McGill moved to Butte in 1911, but after a year in Montana, she decided to pursue a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University. For the next four years she split time between Butte and Baltimore while earning her M.D. In 1916, she turned down a residency offer from Johns Hopkins and settled in Butte to establish a private practice.
At that time, Butte was still a “wide open” mining town frequently marked by roughness and vice. McGill ministered to “victims of knifings, shootings, knock-downs and dragouts all over Copper Hill’s dark alleys, bawdy houses and teeming saloons.” She cared for Butte’s diverse citizenry—from miners and their families to residents of the town’s red-light district—and her patients were deeply devoted to her. One reporter covering McGill’s career wrote of her: “How the miners and their families loved Dr. McGill! With many European backgrounds, often left but recently, these families counted her the special guest for whom the best of food and manners must be provided.” A family practitioner, McGill was described by one Butte resident as “ardent for babies and “against the small families so common around here.” Yet McGill also openly educated Butte’s residents about birth control and family planning at a time when those subjects were still largely taboo.
In 1956 McGill “retired” to her beloved 320 Ranch in the Gallatin Canyon. She had first seen the ranch in November 1911, “from the back of a bobsled,” and had purchased it twenty-five years later. For her, the 320 represented the restorative value of nature: “To get out into God’s mountains, whether to ride, walk, or just sit, will cure more ills than all the medicine or medical knowledge in existence.” Committed to conservation, McGill was a charter member of the Montana Wilderness Association and acquired over four thousand acres of land to preserve habitat and access around Yellowstone National Park.
After retiring from the practice of medicine, McGill did not “relax and rest”; rather, she turned her energies to her vast collection of antiques, pioneer artifacts, and documents related to Montana’s history. This collection, which she donated to Montana State University, became the basis for what is now the Museum of the Rockies.
This gift, like her career as a physician, reflected McGill’s generosity. Mary McWhorter, McGill’s niece, recalled her aunt’s kindness and strength of character: “All her life, Aunt Caroline gathered amazing people around her. She was a woman who valued those of us related to her by blood, but her compassionate heart, keen mind and sense of humor drew an extended family of friends, patients, doctors, publishers, Indian Tribal members, hunters, fishermen, artists, editors, writers, and interesting travelers.” “To each she gave herself,” McWhorter concluded, “without pretention or self-consciousness.” AH
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Pendland, Brenda. “Letters from the World’s End: A Young Couple’s Portrait of Butte, 1936-1941.” Montana The Magazine of Western History 53, no. 4 (Winter 2003), 36-49.
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Young, Burrus. “Many Interests Make Living Interesting for Dr. McGill.” Spokane Spokesman-Review, March 13, 1955, 5. Copy in McGill, Caroline, Vertical File, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Helena.