A Woman in a Man’s World

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

A Woman in a Man’s World

By Kevin VanOrden

At a time when in the United States women had just been given the right to vote, but were mainly kept out of the business world, Nellie V. Vanderlinden arrived alone at the age of 23 having just immigrated from Holland. She spent a short time in New York seeing the sights and then headed west on a train to begin her new life and truly an adventure in Salt Lake City, Utah that started May 1st, 1923.

Growing up Nellie was raised in a family that was somewhat well to do. Her father owned a small hotel with her mother doing the cooking. Her parents were very adamant about her receiving an education, always encouraging her to continue her education. One of Nellie’s brothers became a teacher and the other a pharmacist, whose footsteps she would follow. In Holland the education system is very different than it is here. Public schooling ends after the eighth grade at which point you would have to make a decision, go to work, be an apprentice to learn a trade or test into the university for a higher education. Nellie got into the university and studied to become a pharmacist her dad paying her tuition. During this time she also studied English with a dream to some day to come to the United States. After graduating with honors she found a position in an apothecary, hoping to gain real life experience and be better a better pharmacist. From the time when she was very young all the way until she graduated from the university she was taught that the keys to life are hard work and an education.

After Nellie’s father passed away she made the decision to come to the United States. Nellie spoke to her brothers and her church leaders about this idea and they all discouraged her they told her that she had a good life and a prosperous future in Holland and that she should stay. Her church leaders told her that in America there were very few women pharmacists, and none in Utah. He told her that the diploma with honors she had received and the experience she had gained would not help her get a job in the United States. Many other people from Holland had immigrated to the U.S. and to Utah and most had found jobs doing domestic work for very little money, regardless of having an education. Even though she believed what she had been told, she had made up her mind and was going to Utah. Her brothers saw her off at the port and told her anytime she wanted to return to Holland they would immediately send her money to do so. Nellie knew that if she ever returned it would only be for a visit and that the United States was her new home.

Nellie spent the first week of May exploring Utah, meeting new people, forming friendships and finding a place to live. After that first week she went to the state capital to inquire about taking the state board to get her pharmacy license. The people that she spoke to were very surprised to see a women pharmacist and informed her that she would have to become a citizen of the United States before she could take the test. At the time it took five years to become a citizen. Sadly, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she returned to her new apartment facing the reality of what had been told to her in Holland. Shortly after that she set out to find a job, her first being a temporary one at ZCMI. Later she applied for a housekeeping job for the head Colonel of Fort Douglas. While interviewing with the Colonel’s wife Nellie told her that she really wanted the job, but didn’t know the first thing about washing dishes, cooking, or cleaning. The very gracious wife told her that she would teach Nellie everything she needed to know and that she could have the job. Nellie worked in the Colonel’s home for three years.

It was during those three years that Nellie would spend her days off making rounds to the local pharmacies trying to land a job. Every pharmacy she went to gave her the same answer; they had never heard of a woman pharmacist and she was turned away. Although she felt deeply frustrated she was determined and kept trying. Finally, she offered to work for no money, just the experience at which point she was allowed to start her life in the pharmacy world. At first her every move was doubled checked and they watched over her very closely. But this only lasted a short while, once they saw that she truly did know what she was doing and knew as much as any other pharmacist did.

Finally the mandatory five years had passed; she became a citizen and was allowed to take the state board exam in order to receive her pharmacy license. It was at this time that she found out that she was given incorrect information. She didn’t have to wait five years and be a citizen to take the exam, and that she could have taken it right at the beginning of her life in Utah. Nellie never regretted spending those five years spent making a name for herself and learning so many other things. It was also during that time that she met and fell in love with her future husband. Nellie passed the exam with very high scores and became the first woman pharmacist in Utah at Auerbach’s Pharmacy, only to quit after a year to have her first of two children. Raising her daughter and two years later a son became her full time job while her husband worked in various jobs. Going through the Great Depression was a very difficult time for all. Nellie’s husband was fortunate enough to be hired out of two hundred applicants to work as a ranch hand near the Cotton Bottom in the Salt Lake Valley. Living in a small cabin for the first 5 years of her children’s lives was very difficult. When her daughter reached the age to begin school they had to move so that Beverly and Art, Nellie’s children, could attend school. Once they were both in school all day, Nellie decided it was time to return to her dream of being a pharmacist. She found the perfect job at St. Marks Hospital, working from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm Monday thru Friday as the Chief Pharmacist, which later turned into a full time job as the Hospital grew.

In 1956 she was offered a job at LDS Hospital, which at the time was operated by the LDS Church. The leaders of the LDS Church called her in to offer her the position of Chief Pharmacist at the much larger hospital. They liked what she had done for St. Marks, and wanted her to take the change things around at a pharmacy that was losing money every month and turn it into a profitable business. The pharmacy had a major problem with prescription medicine walking out the door unaccounted for. Nellie was instructed to go in and simply observe and find a way to correct the problem. She found that doctors would go into the pharmacy and take whatever drugs they wanted, whether for them, family or friends. Seeing the great problem she was faced with, Nellie devised a plan to remodel the entire pharmacy at the hospital. The plan made it so the doctors could not enter into the pharmacy, and they had to talk to a pharmacist to get the medicine they need for their patients. Once the remodel was completed it only took a short time for the pharmacy to start seeing profits. During those first few months it was very hard for her, one was that she was hired from outside the pharmacy and was given the chief job ahead of several other pharmacists who already worked there. And two, she had to stay in good standing with the doctors and also stop them from taking drugs that they shouldn’t be taking out of her pharmacy. Nellie worked at LDS Hospital until she was 70 years old, 7 years past the ‘required’ retirement age of 63. They begged her to stay, which she happily did, they even changed the retirement policy so that there weren’t any paper work issues.

During her career she was a member of the Society for the United Nations, the Salt Lake Council of Women, the Altrusa International Club. She maintained career long memberships in The American Pharmaceutical Association and the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists. Nellie also served as the Director of the Utah Pharmaceutical Association and President of the Utah Society of Hospital Pharmacists. After her retirement she received several award from different associations including the one from the Utah Hospital Pharmacy Association. The award she appreciated most was the prestigious Bowl of Hygeia, which was covered in Time Magazine and is given to pharmacists for setting the standards of their profession, for being highly skilled, conscientious practitioners and having a record of dedicated service to their home communities. It was this award that was given to her that proved to her and many others that a woman could do a ‘man’s’ job. She had worked so hard to be accepted by the men in her field and after years of hard work and dedication it was them who gave her this prestigious award.

“One thing I appreciate about this award (The Bowl of Hygeia) is that when I first applied for work here women were not wanted and then, years later, I was chosen by men to receive this award”. – Nellie V. Vanderlinden. The Bowl of Hygeia the recognized symbol of pharmacy. It comes from the ancient Greek goddess Hygieia, the goddess of health. The award was given to pharmacists to recognize a pharmacist for an outstanding record of service to those in their community and for going above and beyond their standard job duties.

The memories that I have of my great-grandmother are of Christmas time. Our entire family, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren would gather together for a big dinner and just a great time spent together. She would always get each of her descendants a gift from a Dutch store, something to remind us of our heritage.Even after ‘retiring’ Nellie never really stopped working, whether it be in the pharmaceutical industry or at bettering herself or her family. For the two years following her leaving LDS Hospital she worked part time in pharmacies around the valley filling in for pharmacists when they wanted some time off. After a lifetime of loving the water she finally learned to swim after retiring, she was always one who could never stop learning and growing.

Although I did not know Nellie very well, as she passed away when I was young, she has always been an inspiration to me. Hearing of her life lessons and challenges has taught me that through hard work and dedication anything is possible. She lived during some very challenging times and had some seemingly insurmountable trials, but through her willingness to work hard for her dreams she was able to overcome those trials and was truly successful in all aspects of her life. There are many stories of her life that I have not shared here, but the ones I have, I feel have shown that Nellie Vanderlinen was an amazing women.

–Information gathered from my grandmother, my mother, and a few of my aunts and uncles and from a small report displayed in the Veterans Domiciliary in Medford, Oregon to honor women in medicine.


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