Portia McKnight Lubchenco
Roots Wings and Service
Blythewood Historical Society and Museum
Presented October 27, 2017
Updated on November 9, 2017
Introduction read by Jim McLean, President of the Blythewood Historical Society and Museum.
“Dr. Portia” Lubchenco was one of the first women admitted to medical school in either of the Carolinas. She became famous in Blythewood in 1918 and 1919 for traveling around the countryside in a horse and buggy to treat victims of the Spanish Flu. She remained here despite the Boll Weevil’s destruction of the cotton economy in the 1920s and despite calls from her brother Jim to move to Colorado, where things were more prosperous. She finally relented and left Blythewood for Colorado in 1931, where she continued her practice of medicine until 1972. She was chosen as Colorado’s Mother of the Year in 1954, and she was the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology. We know of her because of her inclusion in the Blythewood Scrapbook in 2004, because of a book was written about her, and because a road just north of here is named after her. Bob Wood thinks there might be more to her than that, and he is here tonight to tell us all about it.
Let me start by telling you how I chose the title for this presentation. I could simply have named it, “Dr. Portia,” and that would have been good enough. So here’s why.
One of the best things about being a trial lawyer is I get to interview great people. They are mostly my expert witnesses for my cases, but they are sometimes my clients and even my clients’ adversaries. The great people I have interviewed include civil engineers, mechanical engineers, plastics engineers, safety engineers, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, CPAs, actuaries, teachers, and the guy whose picture used to be in World Book Encyclopedia using the world’s first scanning electron microscope. Cool people.
A couple of weeks ago I was interviewing the person with the most outstanding CV I have ever read. Better than any of those I just listed. She has a PhD from Harvard in marine ecology, and she went on to become a professor there. She then took a job as a professor out at Oregon State University, and from there she was appointed by President Obama to be the Administrator of NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the people who predict where hurricanes are going to go. She had a staff of 12,800 people and a budget of about $5 billion. She held that position when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, and during her 4-year tenure we had 3 of the 5 busiest hurricane seasons on record. She is all about helping scientists communicate in language regular people can understand, she is into sustainability science, and she is into protecting marine life. She is, as they say in France, “Something else.” At some point in the conversation I digressed and commented on her life as a whole, and she agreed it had been a good one. She then said, “I am lucky. I had parents and grandparents who taught me about my roots and helped me develop them. Then those same parents and grandparents gave me wings – something that is simply not an intuitive thing to do. You see, if you are lucky enough to have been given roots and wings, you are well on your way to having a fulfilling life. And that’s what it’s all about – having a fulfilling life. And my parents and grandparents felt that the most fulfilling life one can have is a life of service to others. Preferably public service.
Oh, I forgot to tell you: The woman I was interviewing was Jane Lubchenco, the granddaughter of Portia McKnight Lubchenco of Blythewood South Carolina.
Roots, Wings and Service. That’s what we’re going to talk about tonight.
But before we do, let me demonstrate the two completely acceptable ways to pronounce her name:
Now say, “Alexis Lubchen.”
Now say “Alexis Lubchenco.”
So now you can pronounce Portia Lubchenco the way she did.
Now for the other completely acceptable way to pronounce her name:
Say, “Dr. Portia.”
Let me start with Dr. Portia’s life by telling you the story of Maude Kelly. I call this story, “the Four Hands that Saved Maude Kelly’s Life.”
The Four Hands that Saved Maude Kelly’s Life
Dr. Portia had been called to the remote home of a lady who had suffered a stroke and was lying unconscious. Dr. Portia assessed the situation and brought into the home a portable breathing device she had sort of cobbled together. But she needed four hands to run it. So she grabbed Maude’s telephone and called Dr. Portia’s own minister, who lived nearby. The minister – Darrell Davis - showed up, and Dr. Portia said, “I need your help. I need four hands and I only have two.” So Dr. Portia operated the controls with her left hand and pumped the bellows sort of thing with her right hand. She then instructed Rev. Davis to take his left hand and hold the mask to Maude Kelly’s face. And then she told Rev. Davis to take his right hand and hold Maude Kelley’s left hand.
Did I tell you Maude Kelly was unconscious? Those four hands saved Maude Kelly’s life.
Roots, wings and service.
So, who was this Dr. Portia, and where did she come from?
Dr. Portia would say that it all started with her grandmother. And get a load of this: Her grandmother’s name was Portia. Portia Lynam Cuttino, the daughter of Sarah and Charles Lynam. The Cuttinos and the Lynams were descendants of the French Huguenots who began settling in Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry in the 1680s.
The Huguenots are people with last names like Manigault, Montague, Desaussure, Demille, DuBose, Guignard, Horry, Huger, LaRoche, Laffitte, and so forth. The Cuttinos were distinctive among the Huguenots because in the 1600s they were French wine merchants who were Protestants. They got the more powerful Catholic Church upset and were ultimately given three choices: Renounce your wayward religious ways and become Catholic, be executed, or leave our country. They chose Door No. 3 and left their vast wealth behind them and for the most part moved to Charleston. And they took with them their education and their culture.
The Cuttinos bought huge tracts of land near Sumter, Manning, and Summerton. (Many of my sources of Dr. Portia written in Colorado say Dr. Portia was born “near Charleston, SC,” but we South Carolinians know better than that.) Our branch of the Cuttino family settled just outside of Paxville, which is sort of in the middle of Sumter, Manning, and Summerton. They grew cotton and owned slaves. They were, and still are, very much into their genealogies and the significance of their ancestry. When I was a child people used to make fun of Charlestonians because they worshiped their ancestors. And now I know they were talking about the Huguenots. And today I would say roots are still very important to these Huguenots.
The First Portia
Well before the Civil War, the first Portia in a long line of Portias was born in Clarendon County. Let me tell you about her and her mother, Sarah Kelly Lynam.
Our Dr. Portia’s great-grandmother’s maiden name was Sarah Kelly. While Sarah was a young college girl, she used to study Shakespeare with her boyfriend. The Cuttino Family steadfastly refuses to name Sarah’s college boyfriend, but we will call him Reynolds. Picture Sarah and her boyfriend Reynolds reading some Shakespearean sonnet or play on a grassy knoll on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe Romeo and Juliet; maybe Much Ado About Nothing; maybe The Merchant of Venice; maybe As You Like It. Maybe a sonnet like the one that goes, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” Or the one that goes, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.…” You know – romantic stuff.
Well, Sarah was in love with this guy we’re calling Reynolds and wanted to marry him. Reynolds was in love with Sarah Kelly and wanted to marry her, but he wanted to go to medical school, and he knew he could not support Sarah while he was still a student. So he put off asking her to marry him, despite his love for her. Sarah, always impatient, told him if he wasn’t going to marry her, she was going to start dating other guys. Determined not to marry a woman he could not support, he consented to her seeing other guys. So, true to life, Sarah found another guy – Charles Lynam – and they fell in love and got married, leaving our man Reynolds despondent but at least in med school.
Well, it came time for Sarah Kelly Lynam to have a baby, and the only physician around Paxville was our man Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds delivered a beautiful baby girl. When it came time to pay Dr. Reynolds for his services, he told Sarah she need not pay him a thing if she might allow him to name this beautiful child. She consented, they had a deal, and Dr. Reynolds named this child, Sarah Kelly Lynam’s only child, Portia. You see, Portia is the heroine of that great Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice.
Every single generation from Portia Lynam on down to Portia Brown – 6 generations - has included a Portia.
The Rocking Chair
Portia Lynam, the baby delivered by our Dr. Reynolds (and our Dr. Portia’s grandmother), married young Civil War veteran Tom Cuttino after a courtship beautifully written up in Portia’s book. Portia and Tom Cuttino had several children, one of whom became our Portia’s mother. But Portia and Tom Cuttino were both sickly, and they both died early of tuberculosis. After Portia died, our Portia’s great-grandmother the Huguenot Sarah Kelly Lynam, she of the Shakespearian love affair and now one suffering the loss of her only child, would rock our little Dr. Portia to sleep telling her stories of Portia Lynam Cuttino, of Civil War gallantry, of chivalry, of Shakespeare, and of tuberculosis. All of that brings to mind the subject of roots. But I digress.
While Sarah Kelly Lynam’s only child might have been Portia Lynam Cuttino, Portia Lynam Cuttino herself had several children, including a daughter Lula. Lula would grow up and marry Charles “Peter” McKnight, a cotton farmer of the same area. Peter and Lula McKnight had 5 children while they were living in Paxville.
John Alexander McKnight (1913 – 1982) (whose name is a tale itself)
Portia McKnight Lubchenco (August 6, 1887 - 1978) (our Dr. Portia)
Esther “Essie” McKnight Parker (1890 - 1955)
James Harper McKnight (1894 - 1949)
Thomas “Cuttino” McKnight (June 16, 1896 - 1969)
Coming along after the family moved to Smallwood (right up US 21 from here) were:
David McKnight (1899 - 1924) and
Lois McKnight Tolleson (1905 - 2000)
Following Dr. Reynolds
As a child growing up in Paxville, Portia had a best friend named Pauline Reynolds. Pauline’s father, William H. Reynolds, was a general practitioner, and she followed him around and watched what he was doing whenever she could. Portia remembered a time when she was about 6 years old when Dr. Reynolds went to visit a poor, uneducated family of 3 that all had typhoid fever. Doctors in those days made their own medicine and filled it into capsules one by one. Portia watched as Dr. Reynolds left enough pills for each family member to take one every three hours for three days. That’s 72 pills. Dr. Reynolds told them they were going to be fine, and Portia was relieved at age 6 to figure out he was telling the truth: If those folks were really going to die, he would not have left them that many pills.
“What More Could I have Done?”
When she was 6 or 7, our little Dr. Portia and her first cousin David Cuttino were sitting on the front porch after David had been quail hunting. He accidentally shot himself in the abdomen with his shotgun. “I watched as his life ebbed away and he spoke his last words,” Portia would write years later. When Dr. Reynolds arrived at the house not long after, it was important for Portia to know there was nothing she could have done. Did I say Portia was only 6 or 7 years old then? Did I say David had shot himself in the abdomen with a shotgun?
On a lighter side, it appears that Portia learned to whistle when she lived in Paxville. As a young adult she whistled to herself when she was alone.
Wisdom from Paxville
From Dr. Reynolds in Paxville our Dr. Portia learned that “illness and death are vital parts of a community.” She would later write, “The church relies on illness and death to keep us a community of caring for each other.” That’s pretty perceptive for a child who would leave Paxville before the age of 12.
It was also in Paxville that Portia saw a little illegitimate baby buried in a casket. Her father said it was probably for the best since the child had no father. But Portia knew that was wrong – that the child was not to blame and should be given every opportunity. But her father was only saying what everyone felt about illegitimate children in the late Nineteenth Century. Portia, even at that young age, was ahead of her time.
Move to Smallwood
Charles “Peter” McKnight and his wife Lula and their family moved to Smallwood when Portia was about 11 or 12. That would have been sometime between 1897 and 1899. They moved because three of the family members had come down with malaria, and they wanted nothing more to do with mosquitoes. Peter was also told how rich the soil was on the southern or outer edge of the piedmont. What Portia does not say in her book is that she herself was one of the family members who had caught and suffered from malaria. She was that way – never one to dwell on bad things when doing so would do no good. The McKnights moved with 5 of their 7 children, for David and Lois hadn’t been born yet.
We don’t know much about this house a mile or so south of Ridgeway. We know that the McKnights grew cotton and that they also grew strawberries and grapes and had an apple orchard and a peach orchard. They had a spring out back. They had 3 sharecropper families living on their land, and they had a guest house out back with two bedrooms. That had lots of cats, but I can’t find any mention of a dog. “The sweetest sounds in my memory are those of the hearty laughter of my father as he listened to, and told jokes and the musical laughter of my mother as she went about her daily routine. The house seemed to reverberate with the sounds of her voice, like none other I have ever heard.”
The local doctors at the time were Dr. Mike Langford and Dr. Benny Team. We don’t know where Dr. Mike’s office was – It would be a few years before he built the Langford Brothers Building (Wilson’s Grocery) in downtown Blythewood. Dr. Team’s office was in the building that now houses the Ridgeway Branch of the Fairfield County Library.
If any of you were here at our last membership meeting you might recall that we had a total solar eclipse on May 28, 1900, not long before Portia’s 13th birthday. She would describe that eclipse in a letter she wrote shortly after another total solar eclipse she saw when she was living in Colorado.
We also know Portia attended high school in Ridgeway. But she says very little of it in her book or in her writings. I guess she graduated from high school in about 1903 and then went to South Carolina Co-Educational College in Edgefield. (The first woman elected to Congress from South Carolina was from Blythewood and attended school there at about the same time.)
Meanwhile, Over in Russia …
Just after the turn of the century, while Portia was in college, events were occurring in Russia that would have a profound impact on her. You might recall that by then Czar Nicholas II had taken power in Russia, and you might recall he was weak and inept and flat-out bad for his country. By 1905 hundreds of thousands of people had died needlessly under his rule. What you might not know is that he had an uncle, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, who served as his Governor General of Moscow. Alexandrovich was hated by the people to the point he had to abdicate his role. Meanwhile, a 35-year old Ukrainian agronomy professor named Lubchenco was teaching in Moscow and decided his abdication was not enough – he needed to be assassinated. So he and his friend Ivan “Igor” Kalyayev and some of their friends began to plot just that. This Lubchenco was a gentle soul who believed if you walked gently, you walk father, and he believed that it was much easier to take a sword off the wall than to put it back. But he believed the bloodshed had to stop, even at the cost of Alexandrovich’s life. So Lubchenco – Alexis Lubchenco - the very man whom Dr. Portia would find to be the love of her life and who would serve on the Blythewood School Board, bought two pistols just for that purpose. Lubchenco was arrested on his way home from buying the pistols, but he had managed to hide them just before he was caught. He was imprisoned for three months, somewhere at the end of 1904 and the beginning of 1905. While he was still in jail at 2:45 PM on February 17, 1905, Lubchenco heard Kalyayev’s nitroglycerin bomb go off. Kalyayev fully confessed to Alexandrovich’s widow but never gave Lubchenco’s name as a co-conspirator. Kalyayev was hanged two months later. Lubchenco was never convicted of his crime, but he was sent off for a year of exile in the Caucasian Mountains. Since he was never convicted, he concluded his exile without a criminal record and was allowed to return to his normal academic life as one who studied cotton, taught in the university there in Moscow, and sang in his 50-man church choir. Meanwhile, Alexandrovich’s widow was deeply affected by her husband’s death and Kalyayev’s confession, and she dedicated the rest of her life to the care of Moscow’s poor and suffering. If you would like to learn more about this true story, read Portia’s book beginning on page 12 and Bruce Lincoln’s book, The Romanovs, on pg. 651. Vladimir Putin attended a memorial service for Alexandrovich and his widow this past May.
Of course, all that college student Portia McKnight of Smallwood, South Carolina, knew of this was that Grand Duke Alexandrovich of Russia had been assassinated by what became known as the Bomb Heard ‘Round Russia.
An Incident at the Ridgeway Depot
Portia graduated from college in 1907 and took a job teaching school in Sumter that fall. But that summer – the summer of 1907 – Portia was to teach private school to white children in Ridgeway and live at home with her parents and family while doing so.
Back in those days the arrival of the train from Columbia at the Ridgeway depot was the social event of the day, and 20 year-old Portia and her father took the buggy to town to meet the train. After the train left they found a stranger sitting listlessly as if confused. The passenger told them in a thick Russian accent one of two things – the accounts differ.
a) In one version, the passenger told the McKnights that he had misunderstood the conductor and had gotten off at the wrong stop.
b) In another version, he admits that because he had trouble with English, he got off the train based on what time it was and not based on the name of the depot. Since the train was running late, he got off two stops early.
In either event, he told Peter and Portia he was trying to get to Winnsboro to study cotton at the Durham Plantation as part of a program between the Departments of Agriculture of Russia and America. Peter told him it would be the next day before the next train came along, so Peter invited him to dinner at his home in Smallwood. They took the long way home, showing off the cotton fields in full pink bloom between Ridgeway and Smallwood. Portia’s mother Lula had fixed fried chicken for dinner, and they readily found an extra seat for Alexis at the head of the table. The fascination of all around the table was mutual, and Alexis said of the southern fried chicken that he was “more than not disappointed.” Alexis took the McKnight family buggy to Ridgeway to stay at the hotel there, and while he was gone a family conference concluded that at breakfast tomorrow he was to be invited to stay with the McKnights to study their cotton rather than to spend his time with the Durhams over in Winnsboro. The next morning Alexis accepted. And the next few weeks changed Portia’s life forever.
Portia, like Alexis, was open-minded and even liberal-minded. As she heard the family and friends discuss political, religious, and socioeconomic issues with this 36-year-old visitor, she realized how sheltered her life had been and that she had ever thought of a world outside of South Carolina.
For example, in one conversation she said the following to Alexis, only to practically choke on the words once they had come out:
We hardly know there’s a problem [with not educating our Negroes]. They know what is expected of them; they take pride in their work and in the things they can do for us. They depend on us, and we, in turn, are kind to them.
Was Portia beginning to get a pair of wings? Was she beginning to use them?
Not long afterwards, the day before Portia was to leave for a year teaching in Sumter, her Alexis got her alone for one of the first times, and he asked if he could write her. (That’s how they did things in those days.) Portia, of course, was thrilled. But more importantly Portia took the opportunity to ask this man what he thought of her becoming a physician instead of a teacher, which is what her parents wanted of her. Alexis said nothing, so Portia answered her own question. She said to him:
Death draws people close to reality. But many could be saved to life if hands that are skilled, as well as loving, could give care. And I can’t forget the great need for doctors in our community.
Meanwhile, Alexis continued to study cotton all around Ridgeway, Winnsboro, and Blythewood until he bought a ticket back home to Russia via Washington, DC. But, of course, this being a bit of a romance and all, Alexis chose to return to Russia via Sumter (where Portia was teaching). And as he bade her goodbye, he finally came clean about his views of Portia’s future. He said to her:
I believe you feel a sense of responsibility to mankind and that you want to express it through the practice of medicine. There is no reason you cannot be a doctor.
If my guess is right, he then repeated something he had said many times: “You cannot walk backward into the future.” I say that because it was a theme of Alexis’. He would later say to Portia at a Huguenot cemetery in the Lowcountry:
The people who lie here are important only because they gave you who live today a foundation upon which to build. It is entirely up to the individual himself what road he travels [when he leaves here].
And he left for Russia.
Did I say something earlier about roots? About wings? About service?
Letters from Russia
Remember how Portia and her father went to Ridgeway to check the mail? Imagine the excitement in Sumter when folks did the same thing there that fall, only to find letters from Russia! And, as Portia wrote years later, “The letters from Russia came with growing frequency!”
Moving along, to become a medical doctor in those days you had to go to medical school and to go to medical school you had to get admitted first. And to get admitted first, you had to be a man. Here’s how Portia describes her first attempt to get into medical school:
I sent an application to the South Carolina Medical College in Charleston. I was promptly rejected.
You see, they were not accepting women students, she was told. They might in two or three years, but not now.
Almost 110 years later, our friend Mary Elizabeth Blanchard , MD dug into this and found that the school was open to women in 1894, that Love Rosa Hirschmann Gantt and Emilie Melanie Viett Rundlett were admitted in 1898, and that they graduated in 1901. So why was Portia really turned down? We may never know, but Portia certainly felt she was turned down solely because she was a woman.
If you’ve ever studied the Book of Job, you know that advice from well-intentioned people is not always the best advice. Her own brother John told her she was a good teacher and, “Women will never be acceptable to the medical profession.”
Riding on the wings her mother and grandmother had given her, she thought to herself:
Medicine meant to me a medium for being helpful to those who were in need. It was as simple as that! It was my faith.
And pondering the great words of William Shakespeare himself, she concluded:
Only in working toward my medical goal could I be true to myself.
To give you an idea of what a rich intellect Dr. Portia was, the very next words in her book are:
South Carolina had never seemed more beautiful than it did as I was secretly hoping to leave her.
So she decided to apply to the Medical College of North Carolina in Charlotte. This time she went up there in person, taking the train and a black handbag “to serve as a facsimile of what I aspired to.” She met the dean, who said he would get back to her. He accepted her as a new student the very next day, and she started classes the day after that, not even bothering to go back to Sumter or Ridgeway.
The first time she was to enter a dissecting room, her professor asked her what he was to do with her when she fainted in there. She replied by asking, “Just what do you do with the fellows, Dr. Peeler?”
“We stack them all together on a pile outside the door,” he proclaimed ominously.
So our Portia McKnight of Blythewood, SC, asked triumphantly, “Will you please make an extra pile for me if I should faint?”
She tells us very little of her days in medical school other than that Clyde Nicholson of Statesville was a friend of hers and there were no facilities for female students, so she had to run home to use the bathroom.
We know from Portia’s little sister Lois that Peter and Lula McKnight sold their place in Smallwood in about 1911 and moved to a large farm on what is now Portia Road. They did this because the land was better just down the road, and the move allowed Lula to attend Blythewood public schools.
The Class of 1912
As she prepared to graduate as part of the class of 1912, Alexis was making plans to attend Portia’s graduation. He booked a ticket on the brand-new luxury ship the Titanic and told Portia so. He missed a connection in Germany and had to find an alternate way over here.
News of the sinking of the Titanic spread quickly, but not so the fact that Alexis wasn’t on it. Every day Portia poured over newspapers with lists of the Titanic’s passengers. But no mention of Alexis!
Two Graduation Photos of Portia
Now, think about your last graduation ceremony. Nobody singles out anybody for anything. But this time the dean singled out “Dr. Portia McKnight,” and he stopped her in her tracks by holding up her diploma “like an exclamation point” and congratulating her for being the first woman to graduate from that medical school. He then, right there on the stage, offered her a job as his personal assistant. And finally he announced she had graduated second in her class. As she stepped forward to accept her diploma, she looked for her family and found it in the middle of the auditorium. And there was Alexis!
(Did I tell you the book is good?)
She soon got an offer to take an internship at Mass. General in Boston. While trying to decide whether to stay in Charlotte (and start making a living) or move to Boston (to continue her education at one of America’s most elite hospitals), she got a third offer – something about practicing medicine in Russia. This marriage proposal is described in some of her private papers. And she accepted, having no idea Germany was about to start WWI or that the powder keg lit by Alexis Lubchenco’s friend Ivan “Igor” Kalyayev was about to blow.
Dr. Portia and Alexis were married in Peter and Lula’s living room in Boney on Thanksgiving Day, 1912. Rev. B.D. Thames performed the ceremony.
Let me digress for a moment. Thanksgiving Day 1912 was November 28, 1912. Alexis and Portia’s first child, Alexis, Jr., was born 8 months and 26 days later.
At any rate, about 8 months and 25 days before “Junior” was born, Alexis and Portia bought an old house on a small piece of land nearby, sort of as an insurance policy as they were moving to Russia to live forever.
Photo of Wood-frame House
This land includes the spot where 8 eventful years later they would build the first brick home in the Blythewood area. It still stands today. But more about the brick house, and its design, later.
Photo of Alexis, Portia, and Portia’s Two Younger Sisters
I would say the story ends there, but it doesn't. Not by a long shot. And if I were writing a movie about her, this is where it would begin. But since the is the Blythewood Historical Society and Museum and not the Blythewood Book Club, I will only highlight the cinema-quality events that are relevant to the history of our little town.
Portia and Alexis arrived in Moscow in January 1913. They lived there so Alexis could teach at his university. After the thaw each year, they would move to Uzbekistan (called Turkestan in the book – it’s in southeastern Russia, two countries north of Afghanistan) so Alexis could run an agronomy lab during the warm, cotton-growing months. It was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (1700 miles from Moscow), that they met Vladimir Gniessen, a fellow agronomist and member of the intelligentsia. Gniessen and his wife, Parascovia, would later escape the Russian Revolution ahead of Portia and Alexis and settle right here in Blythewood, on Syrup Mill Road.
A Turkestanian Medical Practice
It was in summers in Uzbekistan that Dr. Portia perfected the art of early 20th Century diagnosis. She had had experience in Charlotte, but now she was seeing patients with a wide variety of medical issues, knowing she could not simply refer them to a specialist. In her book she describes challenges involving eyes, teeth, typhoid fever, measles, broken bones, and childbirth. In her book she points out that she could tell a lot about the health of one of her patients from his teeth. She treated the Muslim peasants living near the farms Alexis studied.
She also had to deal with ignorance and with men who treated their wives no better than cattle. She knew in some cases that if she didn’t restore a particular woman to good health, he husband would simply abandon her and buy a new one. She also saw firsthand the importance of prenatal care and what happens when there is none. And she would be paid much the way she would be paid when she practiced in Blythewood – in produce. Pomegranates, grapes, raisins, and whatever else was available.
Photo of Alexis and Their First Two Children in Russia
Back in Moscow, Alexis was personal friends with Alexander Kerensky. In fact, Alexis and Kerensky even looked alike. Kerensky was the guy who would become the first popularly elected leader of Russia. But more on that later. In Moscow Portia worked as a school doctor.
A Violet on Sparrows Hill
I will digress into Book Club Speak to report on a story in the book about violets. It speaks of Dr. Portia and the universality of roots, Huguenot or not. Portia was out gathering mushrooms on Sparrows Hill outside of Moscow when a Russian peasant stopped by to chat. The girl recognized Portia as a stranger. As Portia moved to make room for the girl on the ground, Portia’s shoe uprooted a growing violet. The peasant girl knelt and quickly replaced the roots. And then the girl said to the tiny flower, “You must take root and grow and bloom for us next year and the next. We need you to brighten our lives.” As they went their separate ways, the girl said, “I hope our violet lives, and may we meet again on this hillside, God willing.” Pg. 193.
The Wrong Place on the Wrong Side
They were in Moscow when WWI broke out, and Portia witnessed firsthand Nicholas’s weak leadership and the low morale of the population. She also witnessed the government’s ineptitude and downright corruption and the response of the people. And she witnessed Russian soldiers being sent to the front to defend the homeland.
They were in Moscow for Rasputin’s murder and for Nicholas’s peaceful abdication. Kerensky’s popular (and fair) election soon followed. But Nicholas was imprisoned, very possibly at the hands of Kerensky, something not mentioned in Portia’s voluminous writings.
Kerensky remained in power only a few short months, and the Bolsheviks began taking over Russia city after city.
Hence, when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in early 1917, these friends of Alexander Kerensky, one of whom even looked like him, found themselves in the wrong place and on the wrong side.
And, by the way, it was the Bolsheviks and not Alexis Lubchenco’s friend Kerensky who assassinated Czar Nicholas II and his family.
Bullets from Where a Violet Once Grew
Alexis already had a passport, but Portia’s had not come in from St. Petersburg yet. Every day she would go to the passport office to check on her paperwork. Every day she was turned down. She went there so often she and the clerk actually became friends.
As Lenin and his Bolsheviks began their assault on Moscow, Alexis and Portia found their apartment right in the crossfire. One bullet fired from Sparrows Hill, the home of the violet with the roots, even hit their piano. Things were so bad the Lubchenco family had to move out into the hall to avoid any more stray bullets fired from Sparrows Hill. But Portia continued to venture out every day that week to see if her passport had come in. It had not. Oh, and they were eating birdseed for their meals.
It was cold out in the hall, and the three children were unhappy. Olga (later known as Lulu or simply Lu) announced one dreadful night, “When we build house, there won’t be any halls in it.”
Last year I toured the house Portia and Alexis would design and build when they returned to Blythewood from Russia. It is the first brick house built in Blythewood. Guess how many halls it has in it?
A Prayer Spoken from a Hall
Portia did not record the prayer she spoke that night, but as sure as I am of the truth of everything else in her book, I know that night she offered this prayer:
Thank you, God, for the roots my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother gave me.
But the wings they gave me are for the birds.
Get me out of here!
A Prayer Answered in a Passport Office
The next morning, Portia went to the passport office as usual. But this time she found her friend the passport officer shot dead and the office ransacked. Determined not to accept defeat, she stepped over her friend’s bloody body and went through the papers scattered all over the office. She could not believe her eyes when she found the one marked “Lubchenco.” Now she, Alexis, and their three children could get on the train.
As Alexis’ brother helped get them and their belongings onto the train, he warned them that travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad was dangerous; that travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the winter was flat-out treacherous; and that travel on the Trans-Siberian Railroad in the winter in the middle of a world war AND a civil war was almost impossible. He did not need to remind them how much Alexis looked like Alexander Kerensky. This brother warned Alexis and Portia that they should not expect all five of them to make it out of Russia. So Portia looked at each of her blond-haired, blued-eyed children and wondered which would make it and which would not.
They had trouble with the Bolsheviks, trouble with thugs, trouble with soldiers, trouble with milk, trouble with food, trouble with currency, trouble with sick children, and trouble with authorities in seemingly every crossroads between Russia and San Francisco. At one point, when they were in China and made the mistake of recalling all the things they had left behind or had been stolen on their trip, turned to Portia and said, “We must not have too many regrets about the things we left in Russia. We will live full lives under the blue skies of South Carolina. There we will build useful lives. We will know how to appreciate freedom, accepted there like the water we drink and the air we breathe. Come now. We will make that the heritage of our children.” Pg. 239.
Did I say something about living fulfilling lives?
But this is the Blythewood Historical Society and Museum and not the Blythewood Book Club.
One digression, however: When the Lubchencos arrived in San Francisco, they were celebrities of sorts and were interviewed by the local newspaper. His story was that he was forced to leave Russia because the Bolsheviks had closed all of the schools. That was his story, and he was sticking to it, even in America, the Land of the Free.
They arrived in Columbia and found the Rev. B.D. Thames, the very minister who had married them in Blythewood, and he drove them on the final leg of their journey.
я не говорю по-английски
Remember Peter McKnight, the owner of the cotton plantation, and Lula “Big Mama,” the matriarch? Imagine their surprise when they met their three grandchildren for the first time only to find that not a one of them spoke English!
South Carolina in 1918
My wife Pamela did some serous research for me on what life was like in South Carolina in 1918. She found that gasoline was sold in drugstores; the average life expectancy of a man was 47 years, very few homes had bathtubs, and the leading causes of death were pneumonia, the flu, tuberculosis, diarrhea, heart disease and stroke.
The Lubchencos set up housekeeping in an old frame house behind where the brick “Dr. Portia House” stands today. That first year (the spring of 1918) they grew only corn and a little asparagus. And, of course, prices for cotton (which for some reason they chose not to grow) were the highest they would be in years.
The Death of Peter McKnight
Portia’s father Peter died a violent shortly after the Lubchencos got back to Blythewood. I only know that because I researched it. Portia only mentions his death in passing and certainly not the circumstances. She refused to dwell on negative things, even when she wrote her life history.
The Spanish Flu may be the worst epidemic to hit South Carolina since European diseases wiped out the Native American population in the 1600s. It killed over 14,000 people in South Carolina. The two hospitals in Columbia were overwhelmed. Dr. Portia reported going into houses and taking a sick child from the arms of its dead mother and putting the child in the sleeping arms of its sick father. As with many diseases Dr. Portia treated, there was no treatment for Spanish Flu. So all she could do was help with the symptoms and do the best she could. Remember the story about the four hands that saved Maude Kelly? The best she could do was pretty good, I’d say.
A Horse Named Maude
Anybody heard of Willie Boney, who ran Boney’s Store? One day he knocked on the Lubchenco door and announced that he had a horse, Maude, for Dr. Portia. Dr. Portia’s good friend Clyde Nicholson of Statesville, NC, had graduated from horse and buggy days and had a Ford automobile, and wanted Portia to have Maude!
Photo of Portia, Maude, and the Buggy
Anybody remember Clark Langford, who was Luther Langford’s brother and who delivered the mail? Well, around the same time, the other mail carrier – the one who carried Portia’s mail – Charlie Wilson, came with news: Clark Langford had also bought a Ford automobile, and he had a fine rubber-tired buggy for sale. By providing a “car for every pocket book,” Henry Ford had provided our Dr. Portia with a horse and a buggy. And when Benny Team told Dr. Portia he had been called into the Army for WWI and wanted to turn his practice over to Dr. Portia, it was a done deal. And just in time for the Spanish Flu.
Photo of African-American Girl in Front of Her Home
For a famous year, Dr. Portia would be seen riding the roads of Blythewood – still all dirt roads, including US 21, in her buggy behind Maude. What was not so famous is how Dr. Portia maintained her courage and that of Maude on those dark, cold, wet nights making house calls. What did she do? She sang hymns to Maude. And I bet she whistled to her, too. And Maude did just fine.
Dr. Portia had a trademark of sorts: It was standard language for her to tell a patient, ““You’re going to be all right.”
Another trademark was the fact that she couldn’t remember all of her patients’ names, but she could remember their ailment and the year they were sick.
But nighttime was not all bad. While making house calls among the Black population she got to see how they celebrated Christmas. Because of her book, we of the Blythewood Historical Society and Museum know that poor black people living in the Blythewood area in the 1920s celebrated Christmas by placing a huge log in their fireplace whitewashed for the occasion. They made their Christmas decorations out of endless yards of newspapers cut into patterns of dolls, animals, Santa Claus, and angels and then hung from their log-beamed ceiling or silhouetted against window frames. They festooned their homes with evergreen trees and boughs. As they lit the fire, they sang carols and spirituals.
You heard it here first. Eat your heart out, Walter Edgar!
The Russians of Blythewood
The Lubchencos got to rekindle their friendship with Vladimir and Parascovia Gniessen, their friends from Uzbekistan. They now lived over on Syrup Mill Road (to the west and across the Boney Farm from the Lubchenco and McKnight Farms). Vladimir had planted 20 acres of asparagus. (Remnants of his asparagus operation could be found around Blythewood into the 1970s.) He helped them begin raising chickens and ducks. Portia would fill her buggy with her children and with eggs and other farm produce and deliver them all to Columbia – the children for music lessons from Mrs. Quattlebaum and the eggs and produce for sale. In partnership with Vladimir Gneissen they shipped lots of duck eggs to New York and made a sizable profit. They also developed a peach orchard, a cotton field, and an extensive vineyard.
The Lubchencos also renewed the friendship with Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the White Russians who, like the Lubchencos, managed to escape Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Alexis had a brother named Michael, and Dr. Portia had her beloved “Dr. Mike” Langford. So it was only natural that Dr. Portia would name her first child born in America Michael, born in October 1919. Michael’s daughter Jane Lubchenco is that spectacular Harvard and Oregon State professor I told you about at the beginning of this talk – the one who told me about roots, wings, and service.
Alexis was elected to the Blythewood School Board in 1920. Always a strong advocate for education, both for his own family and for blacks, he remained there for over ten years.
Alexis and Portia designed and built the first brick house in the Blythewood area in 1920. The house is still standing, and the entire family helped build it. It’s the first house on the right after you cross the railroad off US 21 onto Portia Road. They designed into the house an office with a private entrance for her. In her writings Dr. Portia describes how she kept gallon-sized glass jars of medicine on shelves surrounding the room. Cough syrup, Pepto-Bismol, Paregoric, and more. She would have her children fill capsules with quinine. Oh, don’t forget: The house has no halls. And now we know why. And one more thing, and maybe you could have guessed it: Buried in one of the cornerstones is a time capsule with a newspaper from that day, papers from the Blythewood School District, and more.
Now for a few stories. The first I’ll call, “The Dark Birth of Harry and Larry.”
The Dark Birth of Harry and Larry
Dr. Portia wrote that it was an especially dark night, cold and rainy when Maude and I set out for an obstetrical case out in the country. Not long after she got to the house the kerosene lantern began to flicker – the kerosene was running out, and the fireplace wasn’t creating much light. She sent the husband to a neighbor’s for more. But while the man was gone, the baby started to arrive. So Portia threw a piece of newspaper on the fire for a brief bit of light. The baby came right on cue. But then a twin started to arrive, so she threw another piece of newspaper on the fire for another momentary bit of light. The husband sauntered in moments later, with the kerosene but not in the least hurry. Filled now with kerosene, the bright light showed the twins were identical! Years later, Larry and Harry, as they were named, tracked Dr. Portia down to thank her for “bringing them into the light of day, the dark way.”
Her nephew Jim Timmons has recalled for us spending many happy summer days at Dr. Portia’s house in the 1930s. He recalls the windmill and sleeping on top of the grape arbor or in the hay barn.
The Big Train that Wouldn’t
My next story is one I will call, “The Big Train that Wouldn’t.” Dr. Portia was called to an emergency apparently a mile down Langford Road. As she was trying to turn left to cross the tracks, a long, long train blocked her way. The train wasn’t moving and was apparently suffering some sort of mechanical difficulty. She couldn’t go around it because the upper reaches of 25 Mile Creek at what is now Doko Meadows blocked her way. So she had two choices: Crawl over the cotton bales high over the train or crawl under the train. She chose to go low, and as she was rolling someone told her that if the train started to move, she would be okay if she lay as flat as possible – the train would pass over her. She was also encouraged to be hear that the train would blow its whistle three times before it began to move. Well, she rolled under the train just fine. In fact, when she got back from her emergency house call, the train was still there, and by that time a crowd had gathered by Langford Brothers Store to cheer for her!
Alexis and Portia bought this second-hand Ford in about 1920.
The Dark and Stormy Night
I’ll call the next story, “The Dark and Stormy Night,” and Dr. Portia was especially proud of this one. It was after she had bought a second-hand Ford and had placed Maude into retirement with her son Alexis, Jr. She was out one dark and stormy night on US 21 headed south past what is now I-77 when two deputy sheriffs approached her to warn her that two dangerous black men had escaped from the chain gang. They urged her to pass on this house call. When she refused, they lent her a pistol (which she had no idea how to use). “If any black person approaches you, just gun the automobile and blow right past them. Don’t stop for anything!”
Well, sure as shootin’, she was approached by a black man that dark and stormy night. Against her better judgment she didn’t rev up her car and blow right past him. Instead she slowed down and asked who it was. The black man replied, “I’s Mose, an’ I done los’ museff. Could you set me on da rat road home, cus I’s col’ an’ wet, and skeert, too. I hear they’s convicts loose from de law. I know ‘bout haints an’ hoot owls in de trees. Day all scares me. Please! De darkness com on quick, and I los’ de road.” In her book Dr. Portia then describes her getting him home and into the scolding arms of his wife. Dr. Portia went on and delivered the baby and returned to find Mose settled down, warm, comfortable, and calm. Dr. Portia says she resolved herself to be more brave in the future.
Dr. Portia the Author
Dr. Portia was a fine writer, and her book is not all she wrote. The Denver Public Library has a large collection of her essays and other writings. In one she describes parts of her life using the skirts she wore over the years. In another she uses fences. But my favorite is when she describes the Gulf Stream. About the time you’re wondering why she is writing about such a thing she the describes how human ovaries start doing their thing as a girl hits puberty and how the emotions and changes estrogen create are not unlike the Gulf Stream. We’re all smart here. Who among us has compared anything to the Gulf Stream?
Dr. Portia the Scientist
Dr. Portia was one of the first country doctors to use the New State Laboratory in Columbia, although their work for the most part merely confirmed her diagnosis. She was one of the best diagnosticians in the state. Significantly, she could tell the difference between someone who came to her office because she was hungry rather than sick.
We know that Dr. Portia promoted the new concept of a Public Health nurse – something that some country doctors took as threatening to their practices.
Last Years in Blythewood
We know Dr. Portia took her kids swimming in Rimer Pond, where there was a pavilion and public recreation area.
As farming dwindled due to the Boll Weevil and the economy in general, folks started working in the mill in Winnsboro. And she saw more and more industrial accidents. She was a supporter of birth control, but I doubt that would surprise any of you to hear that.
The Boll Weevil had made its appearance in South Carolina not long after the Lubchencos got back here from Russia, but it got worse after the Spanish Flu subsided in 1920. It wasn’t long before her patients could not afford to pay her, and her brother (Jim McKnight) beckoned her to join him in his new state of Colorado. But she resisted those beckonings. Dr. Mike Langford began to slow his practice down, and Dr. Portia ultimately moved into his office in the Langford Brothers Store. She cared for him in his final illnesses, and he died in 1930 after practicing medicine here 37 years.
Haxtun – The Blythewood of the West
Anyway, Dr. Portia finally gave into brother Jim’s beckonings in August 1931, when she said goodbye to her mother and two little sisters and packed up her husband, mother (Big Mama McKnight) and four of her five children and moved to the little town of Haxtun, in the Great Plains of Colorado. Her oldest son, Alexis, Jr., stayed behind to go to Clemson. In 1931, Haxtun, in case you didn't know, was exceedingly like Blythewood. It was a tiny town near a decent-sized town (Sterling) near a big city (Denver). Compare that to Blythewood being near Ridgeway and Columbia. But Haxtun was different from Blythewood in one crucial respect: While it gave the Lubchencos a respite from the Boll Weevil, a year after Portia moved there the Dust Bowl struck.
After sticking things out for a little while the Lubchencos were forced to move once again, this time to the small city of Sterling, Colorado, where Dr. Portia helped found a hospital.
The Portia Gene
I would like to announce tonight an important scientific discovery: The Portia Gene. Genus portiatus. Remember Sarah Kelly, the lady who married Lynam instead of Reynolds, the lover of Shakespeare who went on to become a physician? My discovery is that when Sarah Kelly was born, she was born with this special gene. I have discovered, and announce to the world tonight, that it was some sort of Huguenot gene that apparently came over here from France from Sarah Kelly’s mother’s family. Through my serious scientific study as an attorney unlicensed to practice genetics or even any sort of science at all, I have determined that the Portia Gene is a persistent gene that passes down from one mother to the next, never getting diluted and never skipping a generation. It is a gene of intelligence, inquisitiveness, liberal-mindedness, courage, and good looks. It is actually sometimes found in men, but the primary carrier is women.
Through my in-depth, serious scientific study, I found that it passed from Sarah Kelly Lynam to Portia Lynam Cuttino to Lula (“Big Mama”) Cuttino McKnight, to Portia McKnight Lubchenco and Lois McKnight and several other children of Peter and Lula McKnight, to Mike Lubchenco and his sisters Lula Lubchenco Josephson and Portia Lubchenco Whitaker, and to Mike’s daughter Jane Lubchenco and to Jane’s sister Lula Josephson’s daughter Johanna Abernathy, and from her to Portia Abernathy Brown and Alexis Abernathy Lucas. It certainly can be found in other descendants of Sarah Kelly Lynam, but much more scientific study and scrutiny will be required before others are labeled as carriers of this quite special gene.
If you are lucky enough to carry it, remember that while it was created by some sort of beneficial mutation over in France a long time ago, it was discovered right here in Blythewood, South Carolina.
Two of Dr. Portia’s three children born in Russia became physicians (in America), as did one child born in America. At least one granddaughter became a physician.
As part of the nominating process for becoming Colorado’s 1954 Mother of the Year, her family and friends collected her diary, stories, writings, and memorabilia. A good friend later wrote her biography, Dr. Portia: Her First Fifty Years Practicing Medicine. The book is available on Amazon, and I know many of us have bought copies that way.
The Dr. Portia Collection is now housed at the Denver Public Library, and the Blythewood Historical Society and Museum has copies of many of those papers and photographs. We can thank Peggy Chilcutt’s daughter Shelby Switzer for helping us find those. Since my wife Pamela knows for a fact that I have read every one of them, she is not so wild about Shelby.
Dr. Portia became the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Hall of Science and Technology.
As residents of Blythewood we can thank Big Mama McKnight, Grandmother Portia Cuttino, and Great Grandmother Sarah Lynam for giving all of us some of our roots. Now let’s see if Dr. Portia has given us any wings.
And remember, we cannot walk backward into the future.
Denver Public Library
James F. White, MD
Johanna Abernathy, MD
Kem S. Smith, CPA
Margaret C. DuBard
John Cuttino, Esq.
Jane Lubchenco, PhD
Mary Elizabeth Blanchard, MD
Lula “Big Mama” McKnight
Grandmother Portia Cuttino
Great-Grandmother Sarah Lynam