The most famous and revered woman of her time in Saginaw County history was a tiny spinster with a spinal curvature. She was Dr. Martha Longstreet, a gifted pediatrician of statewide renown who preferred to call herself a “children’s doctor.” Spinster though she was, her “children” numbered into the thousands of former patients of three generations. Perhaps a professional colleague said it best when he characterized her: “She speaks to children as if she had her arms around them.” She practiced medicine in Saginaw County 45 years, 28 of them as a pediatrician.
Born April 20, 1870, in Erie, Pennsylvania, daughter of a lawyer, she came to Saginaw with her family when a child. She entered the former Saginaw Deaconess Hospital in 1887 for on-the-job training as a nurse and was graduated in 1893. The physically exhausting work and long hours almost broke the health of the frail young woman. Her zeal and ability won the attention of hospital officials and staff doctors who encouraged her to study medicine. So after seven years of nursing she entered the University of Illinois Medical School. She was graduated with honors, one of 19 women and 200 men in the Class of 1904. Then she returned to Saginaw.
During her first year of practice, before she could afford her own horse and buggy, she would take streetcars as close as she could to the home of patients and walk the rest of the way. Her first horse, Maude, a dainty black mare, later drew Dr. Martha about town in a black phaeton. She answered house calls day and night in the professional custom of that time. In one busy year she built a sizable general practice and was made attending physician at the former Children’s Hospital, later known as the Woman’s Hospital of Saginaw, then St. Luke’s Hospital and now Covenant. For many years she was the hospital’s only staff doctor. In its early years she often spent entire days and nights there, sometimes fighting epidemics almost single-handed.
In her years as a general practitioner, children were her favorite patients. She loved them. She could win a child’s confidence where other doctors failed. Children were intrigued by her many hats, gay with flowers and feathers. Hats were an extravagance with her, yet they were a kind of trademark of little Dr. Martha and made her seem piquant and perky despite the spinal curvature which had stooped her. The bag which contained her pills and instruments for house calls always contained morsels of candy for the children. She could talk their language about dolls and corner-lot baseball games.
Dr. Martha always noticed things like threadbare carpets, made-over clothing and whether there seemed enough food in the cupboard and ice box. Sometimes, people said, packages of things to wear and food to eat arrived mysteriously after she finished a case in homes like that. Nobody could prove a thing, she would insist. It also was said nobody ever learned all there was to know about Dr. Martha’s devious bookkeeping system. Sometimes it had to do with how long it would take that young couple to get back on their feet after all their sickness. Or whether her bill should be sent in the summer, or later, or whether it went at all.
In 1921 she decided to limit her practice to children. To become a pediatrician, she did postgraduate work at Presbyterian Hospital, New York City, and attended summer sessions at Harvard University. She was recognized as an expert diagnostician whose colleagues enjoyed working with her. She was a woman unafraid of changes. When automobiles became popular, she was one of the first women in Saginaw to own and drive one.
She helped coordinate Saginaw’s social service groups into the Council of Social Agencies. Dr. Martha helped found the Saginaw YWCA, a home for girls, a home for the aged and the First Ward Community Center. She served on the center’s board of directors from its beginning in 1935. Dr. Longstreet was a member of the Saginaw County Medical Society and the American Medical Association and held offices in each.
Nominated as Michigan’s Outstanding Woman of 1938, she was saluted by the community and fellow doctors. She was the first woman ever to receive Saginaw’s highest civic award, when, in 1940, the Greater Saginaw Chamber of Commerce named her its Outstanding Citizen of the Year. In 1938 she was designated “Michigan’s Most Outstanding Woman.”
She was a member of the consulting staffs of St. Luke’s, St. Mary’s and Saginaw General Hospitals; the Saginaw County Medical Society, the Michigan Medical Association and the American Medical Association. In 1949 she received a life membership in the Michigan State Medical Society.
When she was presented with a bound volume of thousands of testimonials of tributes from professional and lay people from all over the state at a Saginaw County Medical Society dinner in 1946, the speaker commented smilingly that this was the only gift Dr. Longstreet wouldn’t give away to the first needy family she met.
On her retirement in 1949, due to failing eyesight, Dr. Longstreet murmured, “What I’ll miss most will be holding a baby in my arms.”
Dr. Martha Longstreet left no huge estate, nor sizable bequests. She had given immeasurably of herself while she lived.
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