Dr. Kate's Legacy in the Northwoods

Dr Kate

Kate Pelham Newcomb thought she was giving up her career when she moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin with her husband over 100 years ago. She could not have been more wrong! The maverick earned respect as a medical doctor and inspired a nation during her lifetime. Her rural community, Woodruff, earned national acclaim and support by finding the courage to dream big. 
"Dr. Kate," a licensed physician before women even had the right to vote, was one of only six women in her medical school class at the University of Buffalo in 1913. Profound personal losses provided the motivation that fueled her career and life.

At age four, her mother died during childbirth, as did her newborn brother. During high school, she lost her beau to pneumonia. And then she lost her first baby, who died due to inappropriately prescribed medication. She began adulthood as a teacher because her father said women should not be doctors. She eventually found the strength to tell him she would find a way to pay for medical school without his help, and he gave in.

Medical work took Kate Pelham from New York City tenements to a modern women's hospital in Detroit and her own medical practice. Then a mechanic named Bill Newcomb stole her heart. Although he supported her work, his declining health after their marriage made a change of environment necessary.


After the couple moved to pristine northern Wisconsin in 1922, Bill's condition improved. Their two-room cabin was 18 miles from the closest town. Kate learned to use a crosscut saw, clean clothes on a washboard, and tap sap from maple trees. Bill began work as a hunting and tourist guide.

One local doctor was covering 300 square miles of patients, many living in the wilderness. When made aware of Kate's training, he began calling her about situations on her side of Oneida County. Eventually, she was known as the Angel on Snowshoes because that was her only way to reach remote areas. It was typical for Kate to drive at least 100 miles to see up to 45 patients per day. Those without phones would tie a red cloth to a branch along her route; that would be enough to get her attention. The pay? Especially during the Great Depression, $10, cordwood for heating or meat for stew would suffice. The good doctor had no office to call her own until 1942. By that time, she was also the local health officer who worked to improve sanitation of drinking water, milk and child health through vaccinations and summer camp physicals.

Kate delivered babies, stitched gashes, set broken bones and more. What she didn't have was a hospital nearby; the closest was 35 miles south. So when a wealthy and grateful patient asked how she could repay Kate in1949, the doctor had a quick answer.

That is how the first $1,000 donation for a Woodruff hospital was made, but although other funds were raised, the project ran out of money before completion.

Enter Otto Burich, a geometry teacher who was teaching high school seniors about quantity in 1952. "Picture one million of something," he told the students, and one wondered what one million pennies would look like. That is how the notion of a Million Penny Parade began. Kate attended the birth of most of these teens, and they knew more money was needed to build a hospital, so they went to work, but not just in geometry class. The typing class produced 500 letters, asking residents and summer vacationers for donations. The math class made graphs to show how donations were growing. The social studies class plotted donor locations on a map. Businesses and churches got involved. Media attention spread. At least 60,000 people made donations, representing all states and 23 countries.

million pennies

A late May parade of marching bands and floats led to the school gymnasium and a pile of one million pennies, 20 feet long and 26 Feet wide. Tourists came to see the spectacle and add their own two cents, or more. By the time summer ended in 1953, Woodruff had $17,000 in pennies, but that's not the end of the story. Kate made a trip to California on the presumption that she was needed at a medical conference. Colleagues took her to a television show that she had never watched, called "This is Your Life," and
host Ralph Edwards shocked her by bringing her onto stage.

People coast to coast heard about Kate's selfless and lifelong work as a doctor, and the project to build a little hospital one penny at a time. By the time Kate returned home, 80 bags of mail were waiting for her. Within weeks, the mail she received weighed four tons and contained $110,000 in pennies.

The 19-bed Lakeland Memorial Hospital opened in 1954 and expanded several times until it turned into a convalescent center in l980. Kate's work continued only two more years, until she slipped on ice after a meeting, broke her hip, and died during surgery.

Her legacy lives on

Look for tributes to this incredible part of Woodruff history at the Dr. Kate Pelham Newcomb Museum, 923 Second Ave., where artifacts include the doctor's snowshoes, medical bag and photos of babies she delivered. Watch the 1954 "This is Your Life" episode
that featured her and the campaign to collect one million pennies. The museum is located on the site of Dr. Kate's former office. A Wisconsin State Historic Marker in front of the museum, acknowledging the significance of the doctor's work, was dedicated in 2016.

The World's Largest Penny, Hemlock Street and Third Avenue, is a concrete memorial that is 15 feet high and
weighs more than 17,000 pounds and is located where the old high school once stood. And the Dr. Kate Memorial Park now stands where the original Lakeland Memorial Hospital was located. Pillars at the park entrance include the 1952 cornerstone and brick from the building. 

A Million Penny Parade in 2003, 50 years after the first, raised $17,000 for scholarships for students who intend to study medicine or education. The 70th anniversary celebrations in 2023 included yet another Million Penny Parade and more activities celebrating the Dr. Kate Museum.

"Dr. Kate: Angel on Snowshoes" by Rebecca Hogue Wojahn expounds upon the doctor's story in the Badger Biographies Series for children published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.