The indomitable, unforgettable 'Doc' Madden

by KIMBERLY WEINBERG, Portraits editor

 

           

If reincarnation is real, Doc Madden told Denny Lowery '65, she wanted to come back as a stud bull, and if he saw one in a field with bright blue eyes, he would know it was she. (Doc was a stickler for the most proper grammar.)

 

            Dr. Geraldine “Gerry” Madden had that conversation when she was bed bound, but her physical infirmity hadn't done a thing to her acerbic wit.

 

            A petite woman with an out-sized personality, she had contracted polio at the age of 3 ½ and lived with its effects the rest of her life.

 

            If you ask her biology students from the 1960s, however, if she showed any vestiges of the virus, they blankly say “no” and admit they didn't know she'd had it. Such was the force of her personality that she seemed a giant despite a lift in her shoe and a deformed spine.

 

            “Strength does not come from physical capacity,” Mahatma Gandhi wrote, seemingly about Gerry. “It comes from an indomitable will.”

 

            Gerry Madden was born in 1916 into a family of veterinarians in Western New York. Her father, grandfather, uncle, first cousin, brother and brother-in-law all were or would become vets. Her father had gone to Cornell University, then the University of Toronto for veterinary school, and Gerry followed and became the only woman in her class at Toronto.

 

            “That obviously colored her personality and was where she learned to swear like a trooper,” her daughter, Sheila Madden, explained. It was also, Sheila said, where her mother became addicted to tobacco, chewing it along with the boys to quell the fumes of formaldehyde used in the laboratories. She'd later switch to cigarettes, which she rolled herself.

 

            Upon graduating from veterinary school, she went into practice. With so many vets in the family, each family member found a specialty to avoid competition with his or her own kin. Gifted with exceptional manual dexterity, Gerry became the surgeon and moved to Bradford, which was in need of another veterinarian.

 

            “With that fine manual dexterity, she could do anything,” Sheila said. That came to include playing the saxophone, violin and piano, and sewing. Both skills ran in the family. Gerry's sister became a music teacher, and their mother was an expert seamstress who designed and made wedding gowns.

 

            Gerry would sew Sheila a reversible velvet coat every winter. Because of her own deformed spine, she could not wear standard blouses and would sew her own - always bright with a Nehru collar. “She would do things like that all the time,” Sheila said. Her skills with a needle and in the kitchen helped stretch the modest income of a country vet.

 

            While cooking and sewing were not nontraditional, as a divorcee, Gerry also took care of her own home and repairs.

 

            “She was taught to be exceptionally independent from the time she had polio,” Sheila said. “She did not think of women's liberation because she would just go out and do it. She just looked at it as accomplishing something.”

 

            In New York state, Sheila explained, students had been required to attend school until they were 18, but Gerry had run out of academic subjects to take by the time she was 16.

 

So for the last year and a half of her high school career, she took classes in mechanical drawing, plumbing, carpentry and electrical work. She fixed everything in her home herself, and

 

where she could not go because of her disability, she would send Sheila, who remembers tiling the family home's roof while her mother gave directions.

 

            Sheila was also trusted to administer anesthesia while her mother was operating. “I had a very unusual childhood,” Sheila mused. It was not unusual for Gerry to wake Sheila and her sister, Kathryn (6 years Sheila's senior who would die in a plane crash while attending Pitt-Bradford), in the middle of the night to go to Allegany (N.Y.) State Park to see an oil well shot or watch bears.

 

            It was all part of Gerry's never-ending scientific curiosity. “She knew the blaster, and he'd tell her when they were shooting. She knew everybody.”

 

            Gerry knew so many people not only from her practice, but also from hunting (“She was an expert with a thirty-ought-six,” Sheila said).

 

            Because she knew so many people, when Dr. Donald Swarts, first president of Pitt-Bradford, came to town to begin recruiting faculty, it probably didn't take him long to hear about Gerry.

 

            Many of those recruited to teach in the first years of the university were not traditional academics; rather they were local people working in the field. Gerry was hired to teach biology.

 

            “She loved teaching,” Sheila said. “That was new to her, and she took to it like a duck to water. She was a Pied Piper anyway. The neighborhood kids would come to be tutored on their senior papers.”

 

            In the classroom, she was tough, giving assigned seats and throwing erasers at those who didn't pay close enough attention.

 

            She was famous for calling the parents of under-performing students. If they were local students, she often already knew the parents and instead would say to the student, “Your old man is beating his butt to get your tuition.”

 

            Sheila recalled the case of a female student who was unhappy about her parents forcing her to attend college and had planned to fail to get back at them. Gerry convinced her that a better plan would be to succeed and not have to return home to live with them.

 

            On several evenings each week, Sheila said, she and her mom would eat downtown in the Congress Street Diner or another restaurant while Gerry held court with a group of students.

 

            “She taught quite a few to roll their own cigarettes,” Sheila said.

 

            That wasn't all. “You'd stand outside of Emery Hall (the residence hall downtown), and she'd come by in her black '64 Chevy Impala convertible with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and her cat-eye glasses and yell at you,” recalled Frank Rizzo '66. What she yelled was encouragement to study or a reminder about an assignment.

 

            Sheila said, “She always drove a convertible. She thought she couldn't be a sexy woman because of her limping and distorted spine, so that was an expression of her sexuality.

 

            “She viewed herself as a crippled individual.” That might have been the most surprising thing of all about Gerry Madden.

           

            The Dr. Gerry Fritz Madden Memorial Scholarship has benefitted 33 students since it was established in 1997. To contribute, contact Jill Ballard, executive director of institutional advancement, at 814-362-5091 or jballard@pitt.edu.