Harmon’s Histories: Asbestos scare would dismay McGill Hall’s namesake

Jim Harmon

The namesake of the University of Montana’s McGill Hall would likely be shocked by recent reports of potential health risks associated with the building.

Dr. Caroline McGill was Montana’s first pathologist and the state’s third female physician.

She began practicing medicine in 1914, after completing her education at Johns Hopkins University the year before. She spent decades helping Montanans be healthy.

But before I tell you more about Dr. McGill, it’s best to go back to the beginning.

What is now McGill Hall began as UM’s “Women’s Center.” It was built in 1952-1953 during a flurry of construction that also included the Adams Center, Craig Hall, Liberal Arts and the Music Building.

A call for bids went out in April 1952 for the Women’s Center and ground was broken two months later. The $550,000 building was designed to house the women’s physical education department as well as home economics.

According to press accounts at the time, the general contractor was Hightower and Lubrecht of Missoula, with plumbing and heating to be done by the Fullerton Co., Hamilton.

Mrs. J. Hugo Aronson, wife of the Montana governor, delivered the keynote address at the building’s dedication in the fall of 1953.

“The women of Montana State University,” she said, “have behind them a great tradition of devoted and inspired service to home, to the state, and to their country.”

From 1916 to 1956, Dr. Caroline McGill, pictured here in 1953, served the families of Butte, becoming one of Montana’s most beloved physicians. (MHS Photo Archives 943-656)

Dr. Caroline McGill’s name was applied to the building three decades later. The Board of Regents, in a 1984 resolution making the name change, called Dr. McGill “one of Montana’s most distinguished contributors to medical science.”

She also was very outspoken about women’s issues.

Dr. McGill often was called upon to speak at women’s conferences and her message to young college women often centered on their lack of preparation for marriage.

At this point, I’ll caution the reader to remember that what follows is from 1926 and reflects that era.

“More than 75 percent of you girls will take up matrimony as a profession,” she told delegates to a Girls’ Congress in Missoula, urging them to be physically fit.

“All beautiful girls should marry young and have as many children as she can,” the doctor said, according to a summary of the conference in the Missoulian newspaper.

“Marry when you get a chance,” Dr. McGill said. “Under 18 years of age, you haven’t had enough experience and mental development. I feel that no women past 25 should marry, as after that she gets terribly old and crabby. And think how pathetic it is for a child to have parents who are old. The time to marry is when we are ready to have our families.

“Aside from the physical requirement, a woman must know how to manage her home and her husband and be able to keep him. Nothing can harm a child more than to take his father from him, no matter how poor or how bad he is.”

Dr. McGill died in early February 1959 at the age of 79, on her ranch in the Gallatin Canyon, where she would occasionally send patients for rest while recovering.

While she spent her life practicing medicine in Butte, she also had a keen interest in historical preservation. She collected antiques and donated historical collections to both MSU (now UM) in Missoula and to Montana State College at Bozeman.

Some said her most prescribed exercise for patients was to get up and leave the dinner table before they were full!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

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