In 1964, a book called “Dr. Portia – Her First Fifty Years in Medicine” was written by Anna C. Petteys.
Portia McKnight lived near Ridgeway as a young girl; became a doctor; got married to a Russian and moved with him to his homeland; and then returned to Blythewood where she was the small Northeast Richland community’s doctor during the early 1900s.
Here are some excerpts from that book recalling Dr. Portia Lubchenco’s time spent in South Carolina.
In 1907, young Portia met the love of her life, Alexis Lubchenco, an agronomist sent by Russian Czar Nicholas II to study the cotton industry in Winnsboro, after he accidently got off the train in Ridgeway.
“My father, Peter McKnight, and I had joined many villagers at the depot on a sunny day in May – as was the happy custom in 1907 Ridgeway, to ‘see the Southern Railway’s four o’clock come in’, and to pick up the mail. Among the arriving passengers, business men home for a day in the capital city of Columbia, shoppers, visiting friends or kin, was a long stranger. A tall, handsome man, he immediately approached Father and introduced himself. ‘I am Alexis Lubchenco,’ he said. “I desire to go to Winnsboro, South Carolina, where I have been sent by my Russian government, and as a guest of the United States Department of Agriculture to study cotton on the Durham plantation.’ Father replied that Winnsboro was ten miles to the north of Ridgeway, that there would be no train until the next day. He invited the stranger to visit our home and to look over the fields on our farm, than which none in the state produced better cotton.’ ... The jogging of the steel-tired buggy over the bumpy roads fitted my excitement over the possibility of hosting a foreign visitor … We lingered long around the (supper) table. The visitor had heard of the wonders of fried chicken, southern style, and was ‘more than not disappointed,’ he said.”
Alexis accepted an invitation to stay with the McKnight family and study cotton on their plantation instead of going to Winnsboro. He escorted Portia home from school one day. A discussion ensued about there being no “Negro children” at her school.
“Alexis came one afternoon to ‘walk me home’ from school … we walked gently in the heat of the summer afternoon. ‘I see there are no Negro children in the pay school,’ he said. ‘Surely there are the ones who really need the extra hours of study. Would it not be possible for them to get the added attention, even if it were by themselves?’ What answer could I give? ... My answers were limp and incomplete, for I had never questioned the customs pertaining to the Negro … I was simply happy, living in a rural community which I loved … I began to feel my sociological horizon being shifted!”
Alexis returned to Russia after completing his study of cotton. He made Portia promise that they would stay in touch with one another. Portia graduated from high school and moved to Sumter to teach. Letters addressed to Portia and postmarked with exotic Russian stamps caused a stir at the Sumter Post Office.
“In the tiny community, where everyone knew of each one’s affairs, the stir changed to active gossip when the Moscow letters came with growing frequency.”
Portia then decided she wanted to become a doctor.
“I sent an application to the South Carolina Medical College in Charleston. I was promptly rejected. ‘We regret to tell you that we are not accepting women students in our Medical College. Probably in two or three years, this policy will be changed. When this occurs, your application will be considered and you will be duly notified.’ ”
Portia did not wait for the school to change its policy. In 1912, she earned her medical degree from the Medical College of North Carolina in Charlotte. She was the school’s first female graduate. Alexis returned to America for her graduation, accidently, but blessedly, missing a connection which would have put him on the doomed Titanic. The couple eventually got married and moved to Russia, while purchasing a small parcel of land in Blythewood before leaving the United States. Portia practiced medicine in Russia. The couple began a family, but then fled Russia when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917. The couple returned to their patch of land in Blythewood where they eventually built a brick home that is still standing. Portia practiced medicine in the area, driving a horse and buggy to see her patients.
“The (Spanish) flu cases were depressing for the doctor because treatment was not known. We had to feel our way and learn from experience … Because hardly any nurses were available, only the most severe cases could be admitted to the Columbia and Baptist hospitals, which were taxed beyond their capacity. Fortunate families were those where the members did not become ill en masse, where the recovered could care for the newly ill. In many homes, everyone was in bed. Even porches were pressed into service. I found, more than once, that a baby was still in bed with the body of its dead mother, when there was nothing for me to do more than to remove it to the bed of its father, who was far too ill to know what went on.”
“With numerous baby cases besides to care for in the homes, I was kept on the road most of the time. I had never realized how dark the nights can be in South Carolina … Maude and I became familiar travelers along the highways and byways of the beautiful countryside … It was well for me that I had Maude for a companion, even though others were fast resorting to the ‘horseless to bolster my courage.”
While Dr. Portia tended to her patients, Alexis raised cotton and peaches.
“Cotton became our crop and proved profitable. Our place was noted for its beautiful peach orchards, the fruits of which were prize winners at the state fair.”
In the book, Dr. Portia noted that a particular experience left no doubt in the mind of Blythewood residents that a “lady doctor” was equally as capable as a male one.
“If there had been any questions in the minds of the fine folks of Blythewood that a lady doctor could be adequate to the needs of a sprawling community, it was firmly allayed through an experience not of my making, but successfully met. The call came to an emergency one mile out of town. A long freight train slowly moved along the tracks enroute and stopped to block my way. There was no way to get around it …There were only two things to do. I might crawl over the car in front of me, over the bales of cotton, and drop down on the other side, where a crowd of spectators and advisors had congregated. I chose the other course, which meant crawling under the train. As I crawled between the foreboding wheels, I heard the advice, ‘Lie flat on your stomach if the train starts, and you won’t be hurt … I wasted no time. By the time the advice was concluded, I had pulled myself up by the iron rim of the wheel on the opposite side … A Ford took me and my bag to the scene of my call … There was still a cheering section when I returned to cross the railroad tracks on my way home.”