Story of farmer-turned-doctor is more than your typical memoir

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on November 23, 2008.

How does a Mennonite farmer from the Midwest end up homesteading in Soldotna, becoming the only doctor in Tanana and an avid flyer and accomplished hunter? He catches “Alaska fever,” that’s how. “Bush Pilot Doctor,” one of the entries in the Prescription for Adventure series written by Naomi Gaede-Penner, details how Penner’s father, Dr. Elmer Gaede, took the road less traveled to Alaska as a medical missionary (of sorts) for the Public Health Services in 1955. With his wife, Ruby, and daughters Naomi and Ruth, Elmer drove from Kansas to Anchorage. The newly minted doctor was headed for the Anchorage Native Service hospital, at a salary of $7,000 per year — an immense amount of money at the time. The Gaedes piled into their Chevy and drove the Alaska Highway, found a place in a new subdivision and began their Alaska adventure.

 The ANS started out as a tuberculosis sanitarium, opening in 1953 under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. When the BIA was replaced by the U.S. Public Health Services, the ANS opened up for all medical issues, and Elmer found himself wearing many hats, anesthesia and obstetrics being the two involving the most work.

Elmer found himself caring for native women from all over the state, many of whom came suffering from tuberculosis, meaning a lengthy stay in the hospital. Women who gave birth often saw their babies sent back to the village while they stayed to heal. This led to Elmer’s doing “baby delivery” duty, not in the usual way, but literally — by carrying the child by plane to out flung villages, where relatives could care for him or her until the mother was well.

Elmer’s first flying experience — recounted here in colorful detail — caused him to catch another bug, well-known and common among Alaskans: The flying bug. Soon he was flying his own planes, allowing him to experience even more of the Alaska adventure, including hunts for polar and grizzly bear as well as Dall sheep and caribou.

After a few years, Elmer requested a transfer to the village of Tanana, where he was the only doctor for the 35-bed hospital. The family adapted well to village life, welcoming son Mark. Ruby and Elmer eventually adopted a daughter from one of the Native women who came to Tanana to give birth, Mishal.

But one of the vagaries of serving in the Public Health System is the possibility that you can be sent anywhere at any time, and eventually Elmer was sent to Montana, far from the Land of the Midnight Sun that had gotten into his soul.

After a few years in Montana, Elmer left the PHS and went solo, landing on the Kenai Peninsula as a partner doctor in Soldotna. The family homesteaded, and Elmer spent the rest of his medical career doctoring and flying, watching his children grow into Alaskan adults.

He doesn’t just focus on himself, either : He talks about his wife, Ruby, and her adaptation to primitive Bush living. He recounts how his adopted daughter, Mishal, finds her birth family and meets the woman who gave her life. He describes his son’s ascent into the sky.

This is a mesmerizing, compelling book that kept me entertained and anticipating throughout. Told by Elmer, in his own voice, the stories are vital and immediate. The reader finds him or herself right next to Elmer as he recounts flying mishaps and near-crashes. We hear his concern and empathy for his patients, his amusement at the goofiness that is Alaska living. He is thorough, detailed and an excellent observer of man, beast and landscape.

It is a wonderful, enjoyable read, for everyone, from the cheechako looking for some words of wisdom to the sourdough who can relate to most of the mishaps and mistakes Elmer went through. And anyone in between.

The book is more than just a memoir of his life; it is a picture into the Alaska of early statehood — before the oil pipeline, before the road system, before “civilization” arrived. As a doctor, Elmer saw people at their best and worst, in their most intimate and harrowing moments. He recounts the details with a shrewd and clever eye, but never forgets the characters are real people, and he never loses his empathy and respect for them.

The book also serves as a well-researched history. Footnotes throughout fill in academic and historical details of areas and events. I also enjoyed the comprehensive pronunciations of Alaska words, allowing a non-Alaskan to get a sense of the richness of our history and Native culture.

And as befits a scholarly book, there is a detailed reference list and index at the back, allowing the reader to turn back to a particular moment at will.

This armchair adventurer agrees with Doc Gaede, in his closing words: “The prescription for adventure is Alaska.” To which I would add: And the prescription for a fantastic armchair adventure is “Bush Pilot Doctor.”

Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at or 347-2422.