Marcell Jackson, one of Alaska's first women MDs, dead at 84

mdunham@adn.comDecember 26, 2013 

Alaska medical pioneer M. Marcell Jackson, M.D., died Dec. 8 in Anchorage. She was 84. Her medical career in Alaska dated from territorial days and, in the early years of statehood, she was one of a handful of women doctors working in the state.

Jackson was born March 29, 1929, in Lewistown, Mont. Her mother died while the future doctor was still a toddler. Then, at age 2, Jackson contracted polio. As a teenager she had her spine fused and used a back brace, which didn't keep her from finishing high school and earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Montana State University.

Short (4 feet, 9 inches) and feisty, Jackson came to Alaska in 1951. She became a lab technician and worked for early-day Anchorage doctors Vernon Cates and Howard Romig. Recognizing her abilities, Romig urged her to pursue a medical degree.

It was still uncommon for women to enter medical schools in the 1950s and, as Jackson recollected to her family before she died, she was a "bit past her prime." The admissions office at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., bluntly told her they didn't think she had what it took to become a doctor. Nonetheless, they let her into the program as "an experiment," in her words.

She graduated with honors in 1962 and completed her residency at Anchorage Community Hospital. She went into private practice in 1973 and for many years had her office at 2211 E. Northern Lights Blvd.

She delivered more than 1,000 Alaska babies, including one on the day of the Good Friday Earthquake, March 27, 1964 -- the only baby born in Anchorage on that day, as it turned out. She was pregnant herself while delivering another baby when she felt the early stages of labor coming on. She successfully completed the other woman's delivery before attending to her own situation.

In another incident, in the late 1960s, she came upon the site of a head-on collision on the Seward Highway. Unloading the family station wagon, she administered CPR while her husband, Rodney Robinson, drove to the hospital; the action was credited with saving the life of the victim.

She underwent a double mastectomy for breast cancer in 1980, working steadily throughout her recovery and continuing to work until she retired, just shy of her 80th birthday. She regularly made house calls close to the end of her career, and was, at one time, one of the few doctors in Anchorage who would accept Medicare patients.

"She never turned anyone away," her family said.

Jackson married Robertson in 1965, becoming the stepmother of his three sons and having three more children with him. In 1981, he became a quadriplegic after falling on stairs and severing his spinal cord. For the next 10 years, she served as his primary caregiver in addition to maintaining her job as a doctor and her role as a mother.

Throughout her life, Jackson relished adventure and rugged living. She recalled living in a barn while her father built a house on his Montana ranch. She loved camping and boating in Alaska's outdoors, particularly with her family. A favorite destination was Seward, where she spent many a Fourth of July stitching up battered runners in the Mount Marathon Race. When she was a child, her family was too poor to afford a bicycle, so she learned to ride one in her 40s. She also got a pilot's license.

Jackson was preceded in death by her sister, Evlyn Vogl, brother, John Jackson, and Rodney Robertson, her husband of 25 years. She is survived by her daughters, Marcell Loomis of Fairbanks and Kristen Schwarz of Anchorage; son, Rex Robertson of Aurora, Colo.; stepsons, Reuel Robertson of Woodinville, Wash., Rodney Robertson of Anchorage and Bruce Robertson of Anderson, Calif.; sister, Marjorie Winn of Woodburn, Ore.; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A celebration of her life will be held at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at O'Malley's on the Green.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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