June 24, 2018
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Insatiable curiosity sustains widowed physician

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

I first met Janet Ordway in the context of a book group. We’d all take turns as discussion leader for each month’s book, which usually meant some Internet research and a few notes to share. When it was Janet’s turn to lead, she arrived with a poster project that accompanied a scholarly presentation. We loved hearing the talk, but probably not as much as Janet loved creating it. Feeding her mind with new information has been Janet’s unceasing passion for 86 years.

Janet is a retired psychiatrist who practiced in Bangor for several decades. At a time when women physicians were rare, Janet chose to be a doctor — not because of any feminist streak but because she had a great thirst to learn. She now lives in Old Orchard Beach, where her husband of 61 years, John Ordway, died last November. I went to visit Janet last week and was as dazzled as ever by the strength of her ever-questing intellect.

Neither of Janet’s parents were scientists, but they fed Janet’s love of books and supported her youthful interests. She enjoyed building things out of balsa wood, such as a model of a two-decker bed with built-in bookshelves. She also loved animals.

“At one time we had 21 pets. I had white rats that played with my dog, a horned toad, hamsters, a snake. Once they even let me take all of them with us in the car on vacation,” she said.

In 1943, Janet went to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., where she was an avid creator of poster projects and models. She built a Roman temple out of balsa wood for Latin class. For science class, she built models of the cell that her teachers continued to use for years afterwards. In one zoology class, she told me, “I boiled down the head of a cat and labeled all the parts of the skull.”

During summers Janet volunteered at a hospital sharpening needles, using autoclaves and doing tests. A pathologist there encouraged Janet to go to medical school, which she did. She was one of two women in her class at Columbia University’s medical school in New York, and not all of the instructors were supportive of women in the field of medicine. Even one of her female college professors had told her that she could not be a professional and have a family. It was a common view of the time — women had to choose one path or the other. Janet was convinced that she could do both.

John Ordway was at Columbia at the same time.

“We met over Jezebel, the cadaver,” said Janet with a smile. They married, completed their medical degrees, then both went to New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College for their internships.

Over the next few years, Janet had to make some compromises, but she achieved what she set out to do. It became clear to John and Janet that they could not manage on two residency salaries, so while John completed his psychiatric residency, Janet took a health service job. Over time, she completed the classes she needed to complete her residency requirements in psychiatry.

Janet did take some time off when her five children were very young, but even then she volunteered a great deal of time toward community enrichment in education and science. And she made up for the lost professional time, she said, by working until she was almost 80 years old.

In 1970 the two Dr. Ordways and their family moved to Bangor. They each had a private office in their home where they saw patients for many years. One story that Janet shared with me gave me great insight into her personality. In 1980, a lightning strike caused a fire that destroyed the Ordways’ home. Janet learned so much, she said, because she found herself experiencing many of the post-traumatic symptoms that she had previously treated in her patients. To cope with the emotional upheaval, she kept a journal during the months following the fire. Later she turned her notes into a published academic paper in a medical journal.

John and Janet moved to a retirement community in southern Maine in 2009. Last fall, John died at home at age 91. It is a difficult time. “I find it most hard when I rush home and have no one to share things with,” said Janet. But that was her only complaint. She talked about the book she’s reading, the birds she photographs, and the class she is about to begin. “I thought it would be fun to take algebra again on the Internet.”

Janet’s hunger for learning is unabated; “I still don’t have enough time each day to do all the things I want to do.” With an intellectual drive like that, life has no obstacles, only more doors that beg to be opened.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes your feedback and suggestions at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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