Skip to main Content

Alaska doctor overcame sexism for adventure and tough cases

Dr. Nancy Sydnam had to postpone her flying lessons while she was pregnant because her enlarged uterus wouldn't let her pull the stick back all the way in a Super Cub, but being seven months along didn't stop her from duck hunting alone with her retriever.

Sydnam was born brave and cheerful. A society prejudiced against women couldn't stop her from becoming a doctor and getting busy delivering babies in Anchorage in the 1950s. And the worries of old age didn't stop her from becoming the only doctor in the Aleutian Islands, where she fixed injured fishermen until she was 81 years old, in 2010.

On Thursday night she will be inducted into the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame at the Anchorage Museum, with a list of other amazing women. The free ceremony begins at 7 p.m. and includes comments from the inductees.

Sydnam grew up in rural Oregon and wanted to be a writer. That didn't work out and she was in danger of being kicked out of the University of Washington for bad grades when she heard a call to become a doctor. At that goal she immediately excelled.

Arriving in Anchorage in 1955, she joined the practice of Dr. Howard Romig in the white clapboard house that still stands at the west end of Fourth Avenue. (The middle school is named for his father). Anchorage had only 28 physicians for a population of more than 30,000 people. Sydnam was given the job of delivering babies full time, on call 24/7.

She has never counted the babies she delivered. For many years of her career, she and a partner averaged more than 30 babies a month, so the total has to be in the thousands.

"I can't go to the grocery store hardly ever without someone saying, 'Dr. Sydnam, let me show you the picture of the baby you delivered, and they're now in business,' which is a great joy to me," she said. "They're in business now. They're grandparents."

Sydnam arrived with a cadre of young doctors who transformed terrible health care conditions in Alaska.

Fatal epidemics of polio and staph infections ripped through Anchorage in the mid-1950s. Alaska infant mortality was three times higher than the national average and for Alaska Native children, it was 10 times higher. Ten percent of Native children died in infancy. Native life expectancy was 30.

In 1961, Sydnam joined a field trip with surgeon Milo Fritz and an optometrist to bring health care to villages on the rivers of Interior Alaska.

Fritz saw huge numbers of ear infections that caused hearing loss in rural children and wanted to address the worst cases with tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies. The Indian Health Service wouldn't pay for the program, so he led the trip to the villages with his own airplane.

Sydnam went to help with the surgeries and to perform pelvic and breast exams and do Pap smears for village women, for which the American Cancer Society paid her $200 for a month's work. She also did pre-op physicals on the children and monitored complex cases during the surgeries. The optometrist administered the general anesthesia.

Log cabins and churches served as ORs. Surgical instruments were sterilized using river water boiled over a camp stove. Sydnam had to scrounge for private places to perform pelvic exams. In Episcopalian villages, she used the offices kept for the visiting bishop.

"I did it on the bishop's desk one day," she said. "I never told him, but Bishop Gordon wouldn't have cared."

At her practice in Anchorage, Sydnam realized Romig and his partners would never let her rise to become a partner, they just wanted her to handle the babies. She said Romig was such a womanizer — or harasser, as we would now call it — that she wouldn't have lunch with him unless one of his children was present.

In school, Sydnam had learned that professors would try to sabotage female medical students, so she attended a women-only medical school in Philadelphia. Facing a barrier with Romig, she left and formed her own practice, which thrived for many years.

But by the late 1980s, she was becoming frustrated with insurance companies interfering with her medical decisions. Again she took a radical step, moving to Unalaska to offer medical care throughout the Aleutians and Pribilof islands.

She was already 60. She loved it and kept the job for 20 years.

Sydnam said women in Unalaska had been afraid to have babies because there was no doctor. Prenatal visits required a $1,000 round-trip to Anchorage. When she arrived, the rate of births went up dramatically.

"When that happened, I said, 'I think men have to be equally responsible for baby-making,' and so I offered, over the radio, a vasectomy special," she said. "I knew that all the guys would be down at the bar, the Elbow Room, throwing dice to see who had to come first to see this wicked doctor. So pretty soon this guy came in, he was obviously scared to death. ... When he got well and spread the word of what I was doing, then I did four or five more."

After Sydnam retired, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association tried to get her back. She turned in her medical license, knowing that otherwise she would be tempted. And she finally became a writer, with her book, "Sideways Rain."

It is a page-turner full of her vivid journal entries, many of them written after long shifts with extreme trauma cases coming off Bering Sea crab boats. Reading about winter storms in the North Pacific, I thought Sydnam's job sounded like being a front-line doctor in a war, as she was flooded with horrendous injuries. But unlike an Army doctor, she had no backup — no other doctor and no way to get patients out through bad weather.

All her life, she seems to have turned toward helping people who were challenging to help. That's how she remembers her early days in Alaska.

She said, "It was all tough times, and we worked together to make things better, and we didn't complain about it."

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.