“Answering Alaska’s Call: An intimate portrait of Alaska’s legendary surgeon, bush pilot, and legislator, Milo ‘Doc’ Fritz”
By Linda Fritz; Epicenter Press, 2023; 294 pages; $19.95 paper and $9.99 eBook.
Dr. Milo Fritz, a pioneering Alaska doctor. always meant to write his own autobiography, but by the time he retired in his 70s, the task was simply too great. When his niece came to Alaska from her East Coast home a few years after his 2000 death to help her surviving aunt, she was invited into an enormous room filled with organized collections of her uncle’s publications, correspondence, files, scrapbooks, photos and slides, and 64 years of carefully kept diaries.
Linda Fritz had long revered her uncle, had spent a teenage summer with him in Alaska, and had conducted an earlier oral interview with him. As a professional journalist, essayist and editor, she was uniquely qualified and unafraid to take on a monumental research and writing project. For the next decade and more, she worked her way through the Fritz papers and other archival resources, revisited family stories and her own memories, and followed one storyline to the next to wrangle all that material into a very readable, informative, and entertaining narrative. The result is a memoir as well as a biography and a medical and general history of Alaska, as well as the story of a singular life.
Dr. Milo Fritz, an EENT (eye, ear, nose, and throat) specialist, first came to Alaska with his wife, Betsy, a nurse, in 1940, to join a medical practice in Ketchikan. At the time (and for years after) tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies were standard treatments for children with persistent ear and throat ailments, and Fritz found himself very busy with those as well as eye exams and corrections. He also discovered that Alaska Natives, especially in villages, received very poor health care — a reality he devoted much of the rest of his life to addressing.
After just a year in Ketchikan, Fritz, a reserve officer in the Army, was called up for service. He ended up in Anchorage, serving as a flight surgeon for troops all over Alaska and earning a Bronze Star for a rescue in Adak. After the war he had another chance to return to Alaska, to be part of a nutritional survey team of Alaska Natives in western Alaska. That experience sold him on Alaska, and in 1948 he, with his wife Betsy and their young son, drove up the newly opened ALCAN to open a practice in Anchorage.
The need for his services in villages throughout the state persuaded “Doc” and Betsy to organize clinics. These, largely independent of government health bureaucracies, were coordinated directly with villages and religious organizations and self-funded by volunteers and donors. Fritz flew equipment to the villages in his own plane, set up in schools or other public buildings, and performed marathons of surgeries as well as pulling teeth and fitting residents with eyeglasses and hearing aids. Everyone in the village was welcome to observe, and girls and boys were recruited to help operate suction equipment and carry anesthetized patients home on litters. The chapters describing the clinics, which were also held in larger communities that didn’t have specialists, are among the most intriguing in the book. In the summer of 1966, when she was 16, author Fritz accompanied her uncle and aunt to clinics in Fairbanks, Kodiak and Sitka as a nurse assistant. Her memories of those times and places add a direct personal perspective.
What saves “Answering Alaska’s Call” from being a dry biography is not only the author’s own fine writing and involvement in the story but the wealth of material that comes from Milo Fritz’s own pen. The man of many skills proved to be a smart and witty writer, and the book is packed with excerpts, some considerably lengthy, of his own detailed letters and journal entries.
A 1947 letter to 6-year-old son Jonathan from Nome provides absolutely charming descriptions of his adventures there and in Kotzebue and Selawik. In Selawik the men let the doctor try kayaking — first a woman’s wide and stable craft, then a men’s (“whole lot crankier and tippier,”) and finally a hunter’s kayak (“which is like going to sea on a razor blade with edge down without tipping over. I did not spill, but it was no fun.”)
A very lengthy letter home to friends and family, included in its entirety in one chapter, describes in tremendous detail the 1964 earthquake and its aftermath. The letter that begins with a philosophical passage about geology and ancient “upheavals in the earth’s surface eons ago when there were no seismographs to record the events and nobody felt any pain unless it was the trilobites or other pre-Cambrian inhabitants of this earth” goes on to detail the damage to the Fritz home and clinic at Fourth and L streets in Anchorage, the ensuing activity at Providence Hospital as Fritz and other medical staff worked feverishly to treat the injured, and the resulting trauma and goodwill in the community.
“Doc” Fritz, with strong feelings about how things should be done and a mistrust of government and bureaucracy, ran for public office multiple times and served three terms in the Alaska Legislature, first representing Anchorage and then the Kenai Peninsula after a move to Anchor Point in the 1970s. Although Fritz co-chaired the Health, Education, and Social Services Committee while in the legislature and was most interested in the health of Alaskans, the book is short on information about what initiatives he proposed or legislation he helped pass.
Author Fritz is clear from the start that her book is not a general biography but one intended to honor “this remarkable man who had intrigued me from my earliest days.” There was conflict in his life, particularly with those institutions he blamed for being behind the times in medical practices and unhelpful in supporting his efforts to serve rural areas. Such conflicts are presented only from his point of view, without access to understanding what legitimate objections there may have been. Likewise, sections of the book hint at some discord between father and the two Fritz sons, but these are unexplored. (Both sons had died before the author began the book.) While a different book may have presented a fuller picture of Milo Fritz’s life, niece Fritz has succeeded with her “intimate” and generous version of what was surely an interesting life interwoven with significant portions of Alaska history. The Fritz archives now reside at the University of Alaska’s Consortium Library, where they’re available to all future historians.