Remembering Dr. Helen Langner
In many ways the story of the late Dr. Helen Langner is also a story about Milford, Barbara Milton wrote in her compilation of interviews with people who knew Dr. Langner, “Speaking of Dr. Langner...A Life and a Legend.”
Dr. Langner, perhaps one of the city’s most renowned residents, who died Dec. 10, 1997, at age 105, will be honored posthumously at Milford Hospital on what would have been her 122 birthday.
The idea came from a conversation about the city’s 375th anniversary, said resident Marti Reed, who owns the Canvas Patch shop downtown and knew Dr. Langner.
Reed was talking to Alan Lynn, Milford Hospital’s safety director, when the conversation turned to Dr. Langner. Lynn noted that the hospital had inherited a number of her items, like a journal, and her medical instruments, including thermometers.
Reed said she had the rocking chair that Dr. Langner is sitting in during one of her most well known portraits.
They decided the chair, the memorabilia and the portrait of Dr. Langner in the main lobby of the hospital would be the perfect tribute to a woman who did so much for science, medicine and the environment.
“Dr. Langner's life spanned nearly all of the 20th century and was filled with accomplishments that had nothing to do with her years but everything to do with her times,” wrote John Curtis in a lengthy 1998 article about Dr. Langner, which can be found on the Yale Medicine website, yalemedicine.yale.edu.
“She was the fourth woman to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine. She marched in one of the first women's suffrage rallies. She was an early practitioner in the emerging field of child psychiatry,” Curtis wrote.
“Her path to a career in psychiatry began during World War I when she had an administrative job at St. Luke's Hospital in New York City. She'd gone to New York a few years earlier to attend Hunter College, which, unlike colleges in Connecticut, accepted women. After graduation in 1914 she taught high school biology, work that didn't satisfy her, before moving on to the hospital. She considered a career in nursing, but her father urged her to apply to the Yale medical school, which had begun to accept women,” Curtis wrote.
Dr. Langner entered Yale medical school in 1918, graduated in 1922, and then went on to weave a full medical career that included work in New York, Richmond, Va., and Indianapolis, and posts at colleges including Vassar and Cornell Medical School. She ended her career at age 98, after working at Milford Hospital and with the city’s health department.
A rich life
Milton’s collection of interviews about Dr. Langner shed additional light on the powerful personality that remained always interested in the world around her.
Milton interviewed Dr. Langner in 1990 at her home on the edge of the parking lot next to the Milford Library, overlooking Fowler Field. Dr. Langner had moved to Milford when she was two years old in 1894, and moved to Ship Yard Lane in 1921.
Dr. Langner talked to Milton about many things, including the chestnuts she used to pick at Wilcox Park as a child, and the chestnut trees that her father planted in front of her house.
“I remember when they built the Post Road,” she told Milton. “I remember when that road was a dirt road and we had to keep our windows closed because the dust blew in. When the trolley came it was a little better. When we moved to Shipyard Lane we thought it would be wonderful, we’ll be near the water, we won’t have all that dust.”
Years later, the city filled in much of that water to create the fields and park-like area that is there now.
Dr. Langner told Milton she loved her hometown. “Yes, I love Milford,” she said. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather live. I have no desire to go anywhere else.”
Jean Bonyai, a nursing director at the Milford Health Department, talked to Milton about Dr. Langner’s many interests.
“The thing I found particularly fascinating about her was that she was interested in so many different things,” Bonyai said. “She was interested in the environment. In fact she said public health starts with the environment.”
Tim Chaucer, director of the Milford Marine Institute, talked to Milton about Dr. Langner’s house, which he said was always filled with papers because she saved anything of value from the newspaper: Articles on people that she knew, or articles about conservation and medical issues that interested her.
He said he learned a lot from Dr. Langner.
“I learned to be generous because she was so generous with time and resources,” Chaucer said.
Dr. Henri Coppes, former chief of medicine at Milford Hospital, told Milton that Dr. Langner was very progressive in her thinking about medicine, and she used to do practically free consultations at the Milford Health Department in her later years.
“She was very upset with what was going on in medicine, especially with the HMOs,” Dr. Coppes said. “She was very upset when medicine became a business and doctors had to begin checking the medical markers. She didn’t like it when everyone talked about doctors as health providers instead of health care professionals.”
Dr. Langer’s birthday is May 9, and a celebration will be held at the hospital that day from 4 to 6 p.m. Her picture will be re-hung in the front lobby near the rocking chair that the hospital’s engineering department will repair and a curio cabinet with items from her life, including glasses, thermometers, a hand-bag and more.
Karen Santos, hospital historian, is putting together a collage of pictures of Dr. Langner. The Milford Fine Arts Council, Milford Historical Society, and other local groups are helping to organize the event.