Female physician Jean Persons tended to patients in remote parts of Alaska during the 1950s.
In the fall of 1954, Dr. Persons and bush pilot Garfield Hansen flew in a single-engine, four-seat airplane from the Alaska Native Health Service Hospital in Tanana to a village called Nulato — well over 100 miles away — to check on an indigenous Alaskan woman who was about to go into labor.
Dr. Persons decided to fly the patient to back to Tanana (“where blood and better facilities were available”) for the delivery. The baby, however, had other plans. Here’s the doctor’s account of the birth:
I sat behind the pilot. With no front chair on the right the patient was able to stretch her legs comfortably.
The weather was brisk with the temperature about zero and by this time it was pitch dark. All went well for half an hour. The patient held my hand and by her silent squeezings I could tell that her contractions were becoming more regular, stronger and more frequent. I was still not concerned and believe we would have made it had we not hit an air pocket and made a rather sudden severe drop. After that I knew we had lost and rapidly prepared the obstetrical kit in the cramped quarters. I handed the baby blanket to the pilot who warmed it over the tiny heater since the plane was very cold. Within a few more minutes I had made my only delivery of a patient in a sitting position which turned out quite satisfactorily. The baby howled lustily as anyone would coming into that icy air. After the baby was sucked out and hastily checked, she was wrapped in the warm blanket.
The pilot was bashful and never would look around, but most obligingly held the flashlight while I turned his arm to adjust this makeshift spotlight.
The baby was christened partially after me, but mostly after that flying machine — “Josephine Jean.”
The baby’s first name is a reference to the 1910 song “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine.”
P.S. If you want to know more about Dr. Persons, she hosted a Reddit AMA in 2017 (at the age of 92!).
- “Baby Born in Plane High Over Yukon River.” Hartford Courant 22 Mar. 1955: 9.
- Tower, Elizabeth A., M.D. “Mid-Air Midwifery in Alaska.” Alaska Medicine Mar. 1962: 9-11.
[Latest update: Oct. 2023]