Dr. Emma Jewel Neal knew, “from the time I knew anything,” that she was going to be a doctor.
“My grandfather and father had been doctors, and I just made my mind up that I was going to be one, too,” she told The Gazette in a rare interview in 1962.
By then, she’d been practicing medicine in Cedar Rapids for almost 60 years. By the time she retired in 1966 at age 87, she’d been a doctor for 63 years in the city.
Neal’s grandfather, Dr. Benjamin G. Neal, came to Louisa County in southeast Iowa in 1848 as a pioneer and became one of Iowa’s outstanding physicians. Her father, Dr. George P. Neal, also had a distinguished medical career in Louisa County after graduating from the University of Iowa in 1874.
Emma Neal, who was born and grew up in Columbus Junction, graduated in 1902 from Keokuk Medical College, College of Physicians and Surgeons, an institution formed from the merger of two schools in 1899.
She joined her father’s practice at Columbus Junction for a few months before moving with him to Fort Madison, but she said she’d always wanted to work in Cedar Rapids.
“I worked in my spare time in my uncle’s printing office,” she said. “I read all of the exchange papers, including The Gazette, and I decided that Cedar Rapids was the sort of town in which I wanted to live.”
Move to Cedar Rapids
Judge Milo P. Smith built a commercial building at 117 F Ave. NW, and Neal, along with Richard’s Pharmacy, were his first tenants. She moved in March 27, 1903.
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Four years later, she was helping organize the annual meeting of the State Society of Iowa Medical Women in Cedar Rapids. The women met a day ahead of the full Iowa State Medical Society at the Montrose Hotel.
Early in her career, Neal found herself treating people for morphine addictions and overdoses. Addicts ransacked her car and her office, by then in the Masonic Temple, following the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914, which made it difficult for people to obtain opiates and cocaine.
Neal, anticipating thefts, carried a small packet containing the drugs in her coat pocket to stave off bodily harm.
Love of outdoors
Neal loved to be outdoors.
“I love to fish,” she said, “and I’ll tell you where I have enjoyed many pleasant days. It’s nine miles from Park Rapids, Minn. Away from the telephones and noises of town or city life. In this spot a man who owns cabins and tents to accommodate about 12 people, rents them at a reasonable figure.
“There exists a chain of 13 lakes. You can bathe in one that is so clear you can see the bottom and fish in another and, if lucky, pull out some fine pike, pickerel and bass. … It may not be the kind of a vacation somebody else would like, but it makes me happy.”
Several women claimed to be the first in Linn County to procure hunting licenses, but Neal one-upped them all when she told The Gazette she got her license on Aug. 27, 1915, while the other contenders picked up their licenses in September.
Life in Cedar Rapids
Neal was a longtime member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club, attaining the presidency of the group in 1926, with Alice Inskeep as vice president.
In 1932, Neal was elected treasurer of the Linn County Medical Society. Her office was then in the Merchants National Bank building.
Like most professional people, Neal had times when her hectic schedule left her a little frazzled — and gave her a good story to tell on herself.
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In 1940, Neal locked herself out of her car and her office. She sent a taxi to her house to pick up an extra set of keys. The driver returned with the keys in an envelope, but when Neal opened it, only the car key was there. She sent the driver back to her home for the office key, but he returned empty-handed. She was about to vent her frustration when the driver looked at the sidewalk where half of the torn envelope lay. The office key was in it. The incident cost the doctor 50 minutes, $1.05 and a little embarrassment.
Neal lost her closest female friend and companion, Verde Yearick, in January 1945. The two had made their home together in Cedar Rapids for 31 years.
When the Linn County Medical Society paid tribute to Neal for 50 years of medical service, she recalled for a reporter her most vivid memory.
One winter day, when it was 19 degrees below zero, she was called to a family on the east side of the Cedar River. There was no way to reach the family except to walk on the frozen ice. Her guide was a young boy with a lantern, “to guide you around the thin spots,” he told her. He also showed her — on the way back — where his brother had fallen through the ice the previous day.
Neal retired in 1966, when she was 87. She was the only living charter member of the Mercy Hospital medical staff and the senior member of the Linn County Medical Society. Her retirement dinner was the first meal at which the Sisters of Mercy sat down to eat with the hospital’s doctors and administrator, Sister Mary Lawrence.
When she reflected on her long career in Cedar Rapids, Neal said, “I can’t think of anything I would rather have done. I consider it an accomplishment to have stayed in a community for this long and not get run out of town.”
She died Nov. 15, 1971, at Mercy Hospital, where she had lived for several years.